Detainees set fire to the Christmas Island Detention Centre

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The following article was published on the Australian website Red Flag on 6 January. Among the detainees there are New Zealanders, including Māori and Pacific Islanders.

A riot has broken out in the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre, much of which, as of early Wednesday morning, was in flames. The rioters are men who want people to know what Peter Dutton and his Australian Border Force are doing to them. They want us to know about the crime being committed against them, and the unbearable torment they and their families are enduring. Their riot is an act of resistance that demands our solidarity.

The riot broke out on Tuesday afternoon around 3pm local time. The men who started it are among the roughly 240 people recently transported to Christmas Island from the Australian mainland—people facing up to the possibility of indefinite detention within a labyrinthine system specifically designed by the Australian government as a mechanism of torture.

A large number of them are New Zealanders, Māori and Pacific Islanders. Alongside them are Sri Lankans, Rohingya, Iranians, Italians, Irish, and Malaysians. These are people who have been building lives in Australia—some for decades, some since they were children.

Many of the men are long-term or permanent residents in Australia—people who have no family or connections in the countries to which the Australian government is attempting to deport them. The deportations are being carried out in line with an increasingly draconian section of the Migration Act—Section 501—that grants Dutton, the Minister for Home Affairs, the power to cancel visas on “character grounds”. It is a legal instrument that functions, within the broader framework of Australia’s barbaric immigration and refugee policies, to divide people between “desirables” and “undesirables” and categorise foreigners as suspicious and a potential risk to Australian society.

According to Section 501 of the Act, visa holders who have been sentenced to 12 months or more in prison, and are considered by the Minister for Home Affairs to be of unsound character, can be snatched from their homes and thrust into the living hell of Australia’s immigration detention regime while awaiting deportation. Sometimes they are left to rot there for years.

The formula by which a visa holder is determined to have failed the character test is unknowable, because it doesn’t exist. People’s lives can be destroyed at the whim of the racist authoritarians in the Department of Home Affairs and Border Force, with Dutton himself having the final say on all decisions.

Among the men transported to Christmas Island are people who have committed drink driving offences, drugs offences, assaults—crimes considered small and some larger. There are men there who have completed their prison sentences only to be abducted by Border Force agents upon their release. There are men who have been compelled to undertake independent assessments by psychologists and psychiatrists who conclude they are not a risk to the Australian community but whose appeals against their deportation on character grounds fail nonetheless. Some are forced to complete rehabilitation programs and told that when they do so their appeals will be strengthened. They do it. They fail.

These are men with families in Australia. They are workers who were raising children. They are men who were sending money to impoverished family members in other countries. Now with cancelled visas they have no incomes at all. This has rendered partners and children homeless and families destroyed. 

Before their transportation from immigration facilities and prisons on the Australian mainland some of these men could receive visits from loved ones. Now they can barely, if at all, get internet access to see and speak to them. Without incomes few of these men can access legal support. Many of them have lived lives scarred by trauma, poverty, childhood sexual abuse and racism—systemic injustices compounded now by the system of state-sanctioned torture that is Australia’s immigration detention regime. 

There are men on Christmas Island who have never been charged with any crime, but who nevertheless have been deemed to be of unsound character and a risk to the Australian community. There are some who have signed agreements to be deported back to countries they’ve barely set foot in—people who have run out of hope and are just desperate to escape the trap they’ve been forced into.

Some have been waiting for six months or more, but now cannot leave, either because of COVID-19 restrictions or because the Australian government is intent on prolonging their torture. And there are men who are stuck in a horrifying catch-22—weighing up the prospect of returning to continents and countries ravaged by COVID-19 against the alternative of enduring the endless torture of immigration detention.

Around 2pm on Tuesday, men from two separate compounds within the detention centre began a peaceful protest that escalated into a collective attempt to fight their way out of their trap. They fashioned battering rams and other devices to get themselves onto the roofs of the buildings meant to lock down their collective rage—to break down the barriers and walls meant to silence them, and keep them from telling us what is happening to them. They went to the roofs to shout into the night, demanding their basic human rights—demanding their freedom.

Sources inside the detention centre want us to know it is a protest against their transportation, against their incarceration, against racism, the lack of access to legal representation, their treatment at the hands of the hired thugs from SERCO who police their lives, their forced separation from family and friends, and the psychological and physical torture that fills each moment they struggle to survive.

To the extent that the Australian government is allowed to treat people like this, it affects us all. Their immigration detention program, and particularly Section 501 of the Migration Act, is designed to encourage the belief that we’re under attack from within and without. Out of the fear of the “others” locked-up in Australia’s offshore gulags they expect to generate consent, and stifle opposition to their racist, authoritarian, anti-poor, and anti-worker agenda at home. 

The more riots and protests there are against this the better off we are. The more detention centres are burnt to the ground, the more strongly will flare those flames of dissent that alone keep alive the hope for a society built on solidarity rather than division, on justice and equality rather than the barbaric reality of capitalism today. The detainees on Christmas Island are striking a blow for the freedom of us all. They deserve our full support.