Saturday, January 28, 2012

Serco lies again - day one at Leonora

Almost 40 refugee activists travelled the twelve hour journey from Perth to Leonora to visit refugees and protest mandatory detention at the Leonora Detention Centre on the ``Australia Day'' weekend.

Prior to departure, activists were informed that their booking at the local caravan park had been cancelled because the proprietors didn't want to lose business from their Serco and Immigration Department clients. That decision would have been in violation of the anti-discrimination act.

Instead, activists camped at a town oval with support of the local shire.

Upon arrival at the Detention Centre gates, an advance delegation was informed that the detention centre administrators had held a ``community'' meeting of the 140 unaccompanied minors in the centre. According to representatives of Serco – the private company that runs the prison – there was not one single refugee inside who was interested in meeting with the refugee activists.

This was despite activists bringing MP3 players and art supplies as gifts.

As soon as the main body of activists arrived at the gate and Serco management reiterated that no visits would be facilitated, chants of “free the refugees'' and ``Freedom, Azadi'' attracted a lot of interest from the refugees inside.

They came and waved at protesters from behind fences in the distance. They explicitly indicated that they wanted to see the visiting activists.

Serco guards tried unsuccessfully to drive the refugees back from the internal fence. When that failed, they arranged for a large bus to be driven and parked between activists and one of the groups of refugees. Other vehicles were already stationed in front of the second group of young detainees.

Protesters outside wrote a letter to the refugees explaining that they support refugees and oppose mandatory detention. Despite being explicitly told that Serco would allow a letter to be delivered, police and centre security initially refused to pass the letter on. A sympathetic staff member (who was not a security guard) helped make sure the letter was delivered.

The refugees responded by sending out a balloon with the messages ``go, go, go'' and ``happy Australia Day''.

By the end of the day, Serco management could no longer maintain the fiction that the refugees did not want to speak to the activists and agreed to facilitate visits the next day.

Organisers from the Refugee Rights Action Network have a lot of experience visiting refugees in detention and organising convergences. They regard it as routine that Serco regularly puts in place petty obstructions and outright lies to try to prevent activists from communicating with refugees unfairly held in refugee prisons.

This is all part of the policy of isolating refugees in detention from the broader community. For instance, while Serco considers clinical depression and hunger strikes of less than 24 hours to be ``minor'' incidents, unauthorised access by journalists to detention centres is considered to be a ``major'' issue.

Video snippet from day one

Photos below by Zeb Parkes