Once You've Been to Baxter You Can't Sit on the Fence
The Baxter protests held during the Easter weekend of 2005 were one of the last protests held at the dentention centre. Already, the backbench movement in Australia under the leadership of Petro Georgiou, had become successful in its push to get people out of detention who had been languishing there since the 2001 Tampa standoff.
On this page, an article by Anna Rose, National Environment Officer of the National Union of Students, who took part in the protests, and the letters to the Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age following the Easter weekend.
7 February 2005: Finding Anna: when Immigration gets it really, really wrong - Astounding is the word, but I guess the story is familiar by now. 'Anna', or as we know now, Cornelia, an Australian citizen, went missing, and based on the fact that she was disoriented, spoke some German, and could not be identified, she ends up in Baxter's punishment block, after 'having been assigned' to DIMIA, the Department of Immigration, for being an alleged 'illegal immigrant'.
27 October 2005: The Kiwi who went to Baxter - Two plain clothed policemen greeted me at the gate. They asked me to accompany them. They assured me that we were just going up the road and back. I knew I had nothing more to worry about than an overlooked traffic fine so, with curiosity and without concern I complied. Ten minutes later I was being held at the Maribynong Detention Centre.
11 February 2005 - Visiting Baxter: Joy Huson and Gareth Evans visit the Baxter detention centre - "Her case exposes the treatment of people by DIMIA, the bungling by Public Services and the "I didn't know" from politicians who surely are required 'to know'."
5-25 December 2004: The hunger strike of the Iranians at the Baxter detention centre - In the excruciating desparation of being locked up for up to five years, the Iranians started a hunger strike in December 2004. Up to 27 men were involved, and Project SafeCom's office was operational during the entire period, while we kept in touch with the supporters' network around the men, and briefed reporters to keep the issue in the news. We wrote seven reports.
7 January 2005: The Bakhtiyari Files - It is likely that the goings-on around the Bakhtiari case constitute one of the Howard government's biggest attempt at a refugee case management cover-up, and the fact that this was a cover-up is a lot more likely than that the Bakhtiaris were, as the Australian government stubbornly maintained, indeed Pakistanis.
4 January 2005: Deported: the case of Ali Bakhtiyari - After their five-year struggle to get acceptance for their refugee claim, the Bakhtiari family was finally deported in the middle of the night shortly after Christmas 2004. This is the story of what wass reported as the last phase of their struggle, but we hope that the Bakhtiari case will haunt some agents in the Howard government for a long time - and realistically speaking, we don't expect it will.
Once You've Been to Baxter ...
30 March 2005
Once You've Been to Baxter You Can't Sit on the Fence
I spent this Easter in the desert. I spent this Easter protesting at Baxter detention centre to draw the world's attention to the injustice of Australia's racist and inhumane mandatory detention system and treatment of asylum seekers.
Thursday morning as I heaved my pack onto the bus outside UTS, Sydney, all I was feeling was tired. Although I'd been planning for Baxter for months now, getting posters out from NUS and trying to get new students involved, I felt so unprepared. I'd even forgotten my hat.
Most of the people on my bus, including me, had never been to Baxter before. On the TV screen at the front, as the small towns hurtled past on the 25 hour journey, we watched footage of the last Baxter convergence, in 2003, and the convergence before that at Woomera. Watching footage of the fences being pulled down was so beautiful. Even more beautiful was the fact that there had been no police there to stop it!
When we got to Adelaide and to the Uni, I wished I'd had time before we left to make some placards and banners. I had so many ideas in my head but they weren't much use there now. Marching to Amanda Vandstone's house in the hot sun with only a small group of us on the pavement through suburbia wasn't the start to the full-on weekend I'd expected, but soon we moved to the road and as we walked up the hill the momentum built. Waiting for us were the Melbourne crew, and our numbers doubled as we started chanting in front of the lines of cops protecting the residence of one of the people responsible for perpetuating some of the worst human rights abuses in Australia.
I made a speech. It was the first time I've made a speech into a megaphone. I had written it at breakfast this morning because I'd learnt some of the scheduled speakers had pulled out. People listened and I hoped they couldn't hear my voice shaking. I wondered if the police behind me were listening too, of if they were tuning out. The media microphones and cameras pointing at me freaked me out a bit. But people afterwards told me it was a good speech, and I was quoted in The Australian which was exciting for my mum (hi mum!).
After we'd had a meeting and decided where to camp, we set the tents up and marched down to the detention centre. The lights around the perimeter fence were so bright they burned the backs of my eyes. A police helicopter flew above us with a spotlight relentlessly searching the ground for any signs of activists on covert missions, or asylum seekers lucky enough to have escaped from the fortified prison. Not that there was any chance of anyone escaping this weekend; there were as many police as protesters there, as we soon learnt.
The white wooden fence posts in front of the barbed wire electric fence were shaking that night as we drummed and sung and chanted and made as much noise as we could, trying to let those imprisoned inside know that we were here, that we were here for them, that we cared, that not all Australians were racist and willing to lock them up in the desert for the "crime" of seeking asylum and fleeing from persecution. We stayed until exhaustion set in and our throats were sore, then marched back to the tents where I fell into a deep sleep amongst the red desert dust under a full moon and a night speckled with the stars you just can't see in the city, interrupted only by the police helicopter and its intrusive lights. Just over the hill were the asylum seekers in the hell-hole of Baxter. I didn't know if they were sleeping or awake, but I hoped they knew I was thinking of them as I fell asleep.
Saturday morning, and another 3.5 km march down to the detention centre. We wanted to walk around the whole perimeter of the centre and we carried balloons to fly over the centre so the detainees could see them. They can only see up, not outwards. Only sky. And hopefully, our coloured balloons gave them hope.
The police didn't want us to march around the perimeter. We knocked down the first fence and kept going. I was wishing I hadn't worn thongs as I found myself at the front and staring at the heavy police boots. We chanted so the detainees could hear us and to keep our own spirits up. AZadi - freeDOM - AZadi - freeDOM echoed from all of us to the beat of the drums we carried. My own drum was just an empty water container tied over my shoulder by a scarf. It was soon lost in the police scuffle as they charged on us, marching in blue and khaki lines into our linked arms. It was scary. I was scared. It felt like a war zone. A line of us, a line of them. We began to retreat. Then the horses charged, at a trot. A row of white horses. A woman fell over and the horses kept going. She could have died. People were screaming and crying. The media just kept taking footage. My blue thong was lost in the crush but a reporter went closer to the cops than i could have, and handed it back to me. Thankyou. Small acts of kindness in a crazy situation.
We moved back and along to the front gates. Some had been arrested, some hurt, but most of us were fine. Singing and dancing and drumming and chanting outside the gates again, stopping the normal flow of the centre's regularity. Regulated torture. Rules for breaking people down. Dehumanising them. Numbers not names.
We stayed until mid afternoon then headed back in the heat to the tents.
Saturday evening a small group of us headed down to the centre again bearing kites. A woman had been arrested last year for flying one but the charges had been dropped. We had made beautiful ones and hoped we could get them over the fence so the detainees could see them. The sun was setting over the desert and it was incredibly beautiful. I wished the people behind the bars could see this and be here with us now. We take our freedom for granted in Australia.
The police soon appeared when they realised we were coming with kites. One woman was flying a kite by herself when a line of about eight police marched towards her in formation. 'Run' we screamed, but she didn't. She walked towards them as if to ask what was going on, and they grabbed her. She was arrested. Some kites were seized. We headed back, only to find the rest of the camp marching towards us on the road. They'd heard we needed support and so came down. If only they'd been there half an hour before! They continued down to the gates to hold a vigil that night. I went back to the tents to sleep. Apparantly at the gates someone got drunk and naked and played guitar to the police. What a dickhead. Of course, that's the bit the media showed. I wish people would think about the consequences of their actions before they act; and that applies just as much to activists as it does to Amanda Vandstone and John Howard.
At the camp that night we heard news from some of those at the vigil that they could hear the detainees shouting and chanting back to them through the fence.
Easter morning I woke up to the singing of one of the Aboriginal elders, the custodians of the land. I thought of all the Australians that would be going to church this morning. Teaching their 2.5 kids about the Christian values of compassion and loving thy neighbour (unless they arrive on a boat and are not white). Jesus was a middle Eastern man persecuted for his beliefs about social justice. Would he be given asylum in John Howard's Australia?
We held one last march to the detention centre that morning. Rosie and I held the banner we wanted to fly as a kite, held up with tens of helium balloons. It read Freedom; close Baxter, and then freedom written in four different languages. I wasn't very excited about the prospect of being arrested for flying a kite, but at least today I wasn't wearing thongs. Before we really knew what was happening, police lunged and burst the balloons holding up our kite-banner. I let the string go so it could fly into the sky but it was too late; the balloons were burst and in shreds on the ground. Bright red balloons. Like kids toys. I kicked myself inside for not letting go sooner so it could have flown up above us all, a sign of hope made by Sydney Uni students. Instead, we marched on to the gates.
We amassed at the fence and made as much noise as we could. We flew kites. The police charged through the fence and over the pipeline to confiscate the kites. We kept one and I helped someone put it back together. He flew it as he was running from the police. A few hundred metres down the line, we heard shouting and saw police and police horses hurrying there. Apparantly someone tried to climb the fence. The cops went crazy, punching one of my friends in the face, jaw and stomach; and throwing another one into a saltbush where her face was badly scratched. They held another one of my friends down over a barbed wire fence. Some more were arrested. It was horrible.
Fighting with police is not why we came. Sure, it got us media, but it was all about the violence. Most of the media were not on our side. I heard the channel 9 (or channel 7 maybe?) cameraman talking to some of the high school activists. People are tortured in there, they go crazy and they end up killing themselves, one girl was telling him. "So what?" he replied. "People top themselves all the time".
I didn't realise I was shaking until I was nearly halfway back to the campsite with my friends from Newcastle. The weekend had been so full-on. I was exhausted, emotionally and physically. Packing up all my gear was excruciatingly hard in the heat. My lips were sunburnt and starting to swell. I lost my sleeping bag and my sleeping mat in my confusion and heatstroke. I just wanted to sleep.
In Port Augusta we held a rally in solidarity with the local indigenous community who have experienced a lot of racism and vicious attacks. It made me think about Lake Cowal, where I spent last Easter. At that time I was with a lot of the same crew from sydney uni, only they were in first year and I was one of the editors of our student paper. Now the first years are in second year and have become amazing organisers in the refugee campaign, in newly established anti-racism collective, and of course still in the environment movement. Lake Cowal is still under threat from Canadian company Barrick Gold who want to mine the sacred ephemeral lake using cyanide leaching. Asylum seekers are still treated disgustly. But things are changing, I can tell. Every convergence, every protest, every progressive media article, every person questioning the government. We will change things for the better.
"The world shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage"
Baxter protesters did not seek violence
Letters to the Editor
Predictably, the protesters who converged on the Baxter detention centre over the Easter weekend have been portrayed by media, police and politicians as violent law-breakers, more interested in conflict with police than changing Government policy. As one of the many who attended the protest and witnessed some of the clashes, I feel that these allegations are manifestly unfair and require a response.
As a Christian and believer in non-violence, it was always my intention to avoid provoking conflict with the authorities. This was a sentiment that was shared and upheld by 99 per cent of those who participated.
Why, then, did conflict occasionally occur? Largely because it was provoked by police in order to discredit protesters and have their efforts dismissed in the public consciousness.
It is hard to avoid conflict if the authorities bring it to those who are otherwise peaceful. Yet, while the odd individual responded aggressively to police tactics, or even abused the situation to indulge in their own revolutionary fantasies (one such gutless wonder, who kicked dust at police from the relative safety of the back of the pack, was quickly told to pull his head in by myself and numerous others), it should be noted that, even in the face of provocation, the behaviour of the majority was remarkably restrained. This is what is missing from media reports and police accounts.
Rob McArthur, Carlton North
The arrested demonstrators outside the detention camp in SA should not be prosecuted but saluted. They have done for Australia what the Germans failed to do for themselves and the world in 1933 when the first concentration camp in Germany, Dachau, was legally established.
The way police barred the demonstrators and destroyed their balloons (the freedom symbol of the demonstration), together with the federal Attorney-General's pledge to make such actions "legal", are a clear indication of the future if we accept this policy silently because it is formulated within the framework of the law.
From the final edge of my old life I, a survivor of Buchenwald, fear the way the Government handles the asylum seeker issue. Those who have not experienced its similarity to the past may not begin to understand it, but I salute the demonstrators for their healthy instinct of doing everything possible to stop this shameless and dangerous development - while it is still half-"legal" to do so.
Abraham Cykiert, Mulgrave
I support the cause of protesters at the Baxter detention centre, but have a nagging doubt that their actions - or more accurately, the actions of the police - have played into the hands of the Government. It appears that police have played an active role in ensuring that, at least in part, the protest was seen as violent.
News media audiences thrive on a diet of disagreement and conflict, and news outlets respond by giving prominent coverage to these issues. Police fighting their way into a crowd of protesters to take their balloons provided the images and conflict that guaranteed media coverage - of the protest and, by default, the fact that a significant number of people coming to Australia to claim asylum are locked away for extended periods in poor conditions. What message does this send to potential asylum seekers?
I'd suggest the Australian Government's whole detention policy is more a publicity exercise to deter asylum seekers from coming to Australia than an actual exercise to protect the borders of our country.
Ross Monaghan, Eltham
A Revisionist National Anthem
As "presented" to the Hon Senator Amanda Vanstone by about 150 protesters in front of her house in Adelaide, and posted to the Baxter05 website. The text was 'slightly adapted' by us from the version found there.
Australians all let us give voice
Truth, justice and the dangerous art of kite flying
Letters to the Editor
The bravery of the South Australian police in riot gear when they burst all the red balloons and arrested the kites to clear an empty flight path was a wonder to behold ("Nine arrested in Baxter clash", Herald, March 28). Then we see that Philip Ruddock is up to his old zealotry, blaming migrants and reffos for clogging up the courts ("Ruddock flags stiffer tests in migration cases", Herald, March 28).
Records show the Department of Immigration was wrong in 87 per cent of the Iraqi cases and 78 per cent of the Afghan cases, and the Refugee Review Tribunal had to set aside thousands of incorrect decisions.
In hundreds of cases when the refugees won, Ruddock appealed all the way to the High Court. Now he is whining that the people in the jails are the problem, along with their awful lawyers. Yet of the caseload of asylum seekers there are only about 200 left and almost none is in the courts, except those who have been appealed against by the department.
Marilyn Shepherd, Kensington (SA)
The art of police spin
Having watched the police action at the Baxter detention centre I can see they have studied the art of spin effectively. They destroyed kites and balloons, a peaceful means of communication, as they did not want the detainees to know that there were supporters outside the fence. To say kites and balloons invaded air space is ludicrous.
To say these provided a diversion while demonstrators tried to climb the fence is to say that police were incapable of patrolling the fence.
What's happened to our freedoms when you are attacked for holding a balloon?
Di O'Mara, Gulgong
Ask your mother, son
Recently, my 13-year-old son asked me about the evils of communism. My response went something like this:
"Well, son, the problem with the communist system, despite their rhetoric of equality, is that some people become extremely rich and powerful - 'some are more equal than others'- while many, despite working really hard, remain oppressed and living in poverty.
"And the government can and often does imprison people whom they see as a threat to their way of life. Unlike in our system, they can keep them locked up without charge or a trial and have even been known to torture the ... ah ... (long pause) ... hang on ... (longer pause) ... Oh, never mind son, why don't you ask your mother."
Leo Sullivan, Haberfield
The South Australian police in Darth Vader helmets and body armour have acted vigorously to protect the flying public from the risk of a helicopter being downed by a terrorist flying a kite or balloon. Do these people seriously believe their publicity?
If anyone knows anything about helicopters, they will know that the downdraft from the rotors is so powerful (after all, it has to generate the lift to support the weight of the machine) that it would blow away something as flimsy as a paper and string kite or a balloon. There seem to be ever more bizarre reasons given each year for the use of repression by the forces that are instructed to enforce the policies of this Government.
Peter Friend, Heathcote
Easter's divine freedom spirit
While we priests and thousands of Christians, including church leaders and politicians, gathered in Australian churches on Sunday to praise and be nourished by the liberating spirit of the risen Lord, innocent people remain brutalised and entombed by us in places such as Baxter.
We should all extend tremendous gratitude to those who demonstrated at Baxter detention centre on the weekend. Their presence must have heartened the detainees with the knowledge that we Australians do care about their miserable plight.
The spirit of Easter and the risen Lord and indeed the beautiful freedom-loving spirit of the vast majority of Australians will one day prevail. Let's hope it happens soon.
Father Peter Dresser, Coonamble
Wanted: UN reprimande
The Australian Government, the Labor Opposition and the Democrats are all agreed: the outback brawling between police and demonstrators did nothing to advance the cause of immigration reform. In fact it may even have harmed it. It seems to me that it's the attention of the world that needs to be caught, not Australia's.
Perhaps that's best done by pointing out the breathtaking irony that, while refugee advocates vainly plead for humane change to mandatory detention, the former foreign minister Gareth Evans has been shortlisted for the job of UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Instead of blood and bruises in the sand, perhaps the voice of protest should be directed to the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, to say that as Australia's policies on refugee detention fly in the face of UN policy, Mr Evans's nomination has to be discarded. It's not that he shouldn't represent Australia in a key UN post, but that Australia shouldn't.
Brian Haill, Frankston (Vic)
Amanda Vanstone must be preparing for a career on the comedy circuit after she leaves politics. Her Government locks up women and children in concentration camps indefinitely, and she tells us that protesters demonstrating on their behalf would be causing them some distress. It would be funny, Amanda, if it wasn't so pathetic.
Alan Coggins, Blackheath
Kites for freedom
April 30, 2005, marks the 60th anniversary of the death of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime in Germany. I urge all Australians to fly kites and balloons on that day.
Gionni Di Gravio, Mayfield
Protests raise the volume of the detention debate
Letters to the Editor
Raising the noise stakes
SINCE when do "protesters and their supporters" believe that "everyone held in detention is a refugee who should be given asylum", K.M. Gunn (Letters, 29/3)? And precisely which laws were broken? Threatening police helicopters with helium-filled balloons?
In Baxter, Peter Qasim is fast approaching his seventh year behind razor wire. He is stateless. He can go nowhere. His supporters rightly want him released. Other asylum-seekers are in a similar position in Baxter and Australia's other onshore and offshore detention centres.
Supporters know that writing "a firm but polite letter" to their MP will yield nothing more than a form response and a yawn. They have been doing it for years.
Protesting to the UN, even if it leads to a UN report, will immediately be dismissed as interfering, or "flawed" by a government that stubbornly refuses to listen.
When the voices of decency and humanity are ignored by government, the honest citizens in a democracy are obliged to raise the volume in the streets.
YOUR editorial (29/3) labelled the Baxter protesters as a "rent-a-crowd". I would like to point out that the protesters sacrificed their Easter holidays, paid up to $150 for a bus fare to Port Augusta, spent 48 hours on an uncomfortable bus travelling thousands of kilometres and faced police intimidation and brutality outside Baxter. This shows real commitment to a cause.
To label these people a "rent-a-crowd" is wrong and lazy. The real rent-a-crowd are the police who were paid to be there.
AFTER returning to Melbourne from the protest at the Baxter detention centre, I am disappointed in the media coverage of the protest.
Unfortunately, the media seem to be more interested in the "drama" of police clashes with "ratbag" protesters than the actual issue at hand; that being the complete lack of compassion the Howard government has shown these detainees, and the fact that locking them up contravenes basic human rights.
The people inside the detention centre, and their plight, is more important than the people outside whether they are protesters or police. This is the message that peaceful protesters like myself were trying to highlight by being at the detention centre over the weekend.