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Riot Police shut down Villawood Detention Centre protest

Riot Police were deployed at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, west of Sydney, on 16 April to quell a rooftop protest by three detainees. Video frame: supplied


Riot Police were deployed at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Villawood, west of Sydney, on 16 April to quell a rooftop protest by three detainees in the Blaxland compound, which began five days earlier on Easter Saturday.

Around 200 Villawood detainees also began a hunger strike on Monday 13 April to demand testing for COVID-19 and release from their closely-confined detention – a high-risk environment for spread of the deadly virus.

Balaclava-wearing officers from NSW Police’s Public Order and Riot Squad were brought in to restore order, assisted by Australian Border Force. According to the Refugee Action Coalition, detainees in Blaxland were locked in their rooms for days, but after riot police were deployed they were transferred to the Hume compound.

“Swapping Blaxland for Hume has done nothing to rectify the inherent risk that is associated with the detention environment,” Ian Rintoul, Refugee Action Coalition spokesman, said in a statement.

All detainees have been prevented from seeing visitors since 24 March, after Australian Border Force issued strict controls to prevent coronavirus transmissions into their institutions. Detainees have been provided with a $20 phone credit each week to enable ongoing verbal communications with their families, legal representatives and community groups via mobile phones and computers.

The former Villawood Migrant Hostel, built in 1949 and at one time the largest migrant accommodation facility in Australia, houses around 500 detainees, including children. The centre, which was converted in 1976 to provide secure custody for persons awaiting review or deportation, has aroused controversy with allegations of human rights abuses. There have been several suicides on the premises.

In January 2008, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) demanded closure of the high-security section of Villawood, describing it as “harsh and inhospitable” and the “most prison-like” of all Australia’s immigration detention centres.

In 2011, 13 asylum seekers took to the roof after their pleas for a meeting with the Immigration Department were refused. The protest resulted in the incineration of three buildings, with claims that one of the rooftop occupants threw roof tiles at fire fighters after they blasted him with their high-pressure hose. Up to 100 firefighters in 19 fire trucks battled the blaze and a medical centre, dining room and computer room were destroyed.

Since the Covid-19 lockdown laws were implemented, refugees have also held protests in Melbourne and Brisbane, objecting to being kept in over-crowded hotels and detention centres.

At least 40 men who were brought to Australia from offshore detention centres under the emergency Medevac (Medical Evacuation) transfer law, are being held at the Mantra Hotel in Preston, north Melbourne. On 9 April, campaigners who drove in a car motorcade past the Mantra Hotel, beeping their horns in solidarity with the refugees and asylum seekers confined inside the complex, were collectively fined almost $43,000 by Victoria Police.

26 individuals who took part in the vehicle protest were individually fined $1,652 for their involvement and breaching physical-distancing orders, bringing the group total to $42,952.

The organiser and refugee advocate, Chris Breen, of Refugee Action Coalition, was arrested an hour before the car-based rally began and taken into custody for planning the protest. He was charged with Incitement and is due to face court in August. In Victoria, ‘Incitement’ includes “commanding, requesting, proposing, advising, encouraging or authorising a person to pursue a course of conduct that would, if acted upon, involve the commission of an offence.”

Breen told SBS News he was taken to Preston Police Station and held in custody for nine hours while officers obtained a warrant to seize his home computer and mobile phone records.

A police spokesperson said “While Victoria Police respects the public’s right to protest, these are extraordinary times and the health and safety of every Victorian needs to be our number one priority at this time.”

Protest organisers criticised Victoria Police’s response and said the demonstration was deliberately organised in cars so that all involved maintained the social distancing required by Victorian state legislation at all times.

In a statement, the Refugee Action Coalition said: “The police action has deliberately targeted protest action that highlights the government’s hypocrisy on COVID-19 safety. You can leave your home to drive to JB Hi-Fi, but you can’t drive outside a hotel to highlight the lack of safety for vulnerable people who should not be imprisoned. Health rules around coronavirus cannot be used to stamp out the right to protest.”

In response the Department of Home Affairs insisted no detainees in immigration detention facilities had yet tested positive to coronavirus. “Infection control plans are in place and plans to manage suspected cases of COVID-19 have been developed and tested. Detainees displaying any COVID-19 symptoms will be tested and quarantined in line with advice from health officials and in accordance with the broader Commonwealth response.”

However, the detainees inside Mantra Hotel contradicted the Dept Home Affairs, saying they launched their protest to criticise their crowded conditions, alleging there was a lack of hand sanitiser and other personal hygiene measures necessary to combat the spread of COVID-19.

An open letter released in March and signed by over 1,000 doctors and other health professionals called for detained refuges and asylum seekers to be released into the community during the coronavirus pandemic. David Isaacs, the Sydney paediatrician and refugee advocate who drafted the letter, warned that hotels being used as detention sites “constitute a very high-risk environment for detainees’ mental and physical health.”

“Detention is a virus time-bomb,” said Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition. “The government’s own propaganda names detention as a high risk environment. But detainees are being held in an unsafe situation.”

City Hub’s previous reporting on Villawood Detention Centre:

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