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The Network: Points of Light in Australia as seen from a satellite

Virtual Communities and Human rights

A paper by Barbara Rogalla

"As the human rights record of the Howard government in its treatment of asylum seekers came under national and international scrutiny, much of the communication among refugee supporters occurred increasingly online."

"The internet enabled activists who have never met before to unite under a common issue, to rapidly set up support groups, to plan public action and to target media attention by using a keyboard, as they formed virtual communities. Activists made available online information about allegations of human rights abuses from inaccessible detention centres behind razor wire and electric fences, often within minutes of being reported."

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3 August 2005: Ensnared in a time warp; uninvited refugees inside Australia's immigration detention centres - "... immigration detention deprived children of their social development and excluded them from educational and developmental opportunities. They became Australia's little prisoners."

29 July 2003: Modern-day torture: Government-sponsored neglect of asylum children - Australia's response to unwanted and uninvited refugees is to keep people out by military means, and to incarcerate those who make it alive to our shores, including families with their newborn babies. Such response is morally wrong as well as indefensible...

Cheap, savvy, effective: The potential of virtual communities to safeguard human rights

Presented at the conference: Community Development, Human Rights, and the Grassroots, Melbourne, 14 - 18 April 2004.

Presenter: Barbara Rogalla


As the human rights record of the Howard government in its treatment of asylum seekers came under national and international scrutiny, much of the communication among refugee supporters occurred increasingly online. The internet enabled activists who have never met before to unite under a common issue, to rapidly set up support groups, to plan public action and to target media attention by using a keyboard, as they formed virtual communities. Activists made available online information about allegations of human rights abuses from inaccessible detention centres behind razor wire and electric fences, often within minutes of being reported.

The author also reflects on her steep learning curve, when the aftermath of a six-week working contract at the former Woomera immigration detention centre propelled her into the midst of media attention and led to a parliamentary inquiry. Communication was instantaneous, direct, and transported issues and evidence to the desks of committed activists, lawyers, politicians, police, and other investigating bodies.

This article explores how the shared values, the direct communication, and the reciprocal action of the human rights movement in Australia brought together an on-line community.

"I'll put you on the mailing list" said the unknown solicitor from Sydney. Only minutes earlier, he phoned to tell me that he had negotiated free legal representation for me, should I need it. From this moment, I was a member of a growing online community. Two years later, in 2002, there were an estimated 160 asylum seekers support groups "humming" in cyberspace (Bartlett, 2002).

Asylum seekers came to Australia without valid travel documents, usually on rickety boats about to capsize, after paying an exorbitant price to people smugglers. Although the vast majority among them were refugees, they represented the type of refugee most despised by the government. Even after their refugee status was no longer in doubt, the Immigration Department separated them from other refugees for the purpose of "reducing the incentive for people seeking to use unlawful arrival and refugee claims" (DIMIA, 2003 b). So determined is the government to punish those who came by boat, that even bona fide refugees must convince immigration officials every three years that returning home means returning to the risk of persecution. The legislation from September 2003 ensures that the possibility of such return repeats every three years, whilst Australia actively seeks grounds for removing such persons.

Some asylum seekers were never recognised as refugees and have been locked up since their arrival, at times for years. Euphemistically, the government called these lock-ups "Immigration Reception and Processing Centres".

Such hard line toward asylum seekers and their boats should not come as a surprise. Since 1997, one year after the Howard government came to power, Australia herself has become a refugee producing country. Over a five-year period, thirty-one Australian nationals have asked America for refugee protection. Two applicants convinced the US Department of Justice that they either suffered persecution on racial, religious, or political grounds, or that they had a realistic fear of such persecution (Dunn, 2004) [1].

Virtual community in a real world

My acquaintance with the on-line community of human rights activists was the aftermath of three months of work at the Woomera detention centre during the year 2000. As the world greeted the new millennium, eight hundred asylum seekers were held incommunicado behind razor wire fences in outback South Australia. Three months later, there were fourteen hundred. Phone calls and letter writing were forbidden, and there was a news blackout. People did not have names. They were called by a number. All inmates, including small children, wore identity tags. Headcounts occurred randomly at any time of the night or day, when the siren called to muster. Guards in khaki-brown uniforms administered the day-to-day running of the centre and patrolled the perimeters.

On the outside, concerned citizens began to link up. This process was accelerated when secrets escaped from behind the razor wire, and the public was informed of conditions inside.

On a cold winter's night in June, just after midnight, five hundred asylum seekers pushed down the fences that held them captive. Woomera swarmed with reporters. Among shouts of "Freedom, Freedom", asylum seekers gave media interviews for ten or twenty Dollar phone cards. Australia saw their faces and learned of their stories. By the third day, all were back behind the wire. Two months later, a riot erupted. Smoke filled the air of the gibber desert. Buildings were destroyed. Guards and inmates were injured. Tear gas, batons and riot shields ensured that asylum seekers remained inside.

In November 2000, nurses informed the media that management of Australasian Correctional Management suppressed an investigation into the suspected rape of an asylum seeker child at the Woomera detention centre. Former Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock denied the allegations. But after ten days of intense media pressure, police re-opened the case and the Minister commissioned a parliamentary inquiry (Flood, 2001) [2].

Nurses spoke amid fears of being sued for breach of a silencing provision in their employment contract. They also knew they barred their chances from ever again working in an emerging profitable industry. Against these perceived threats, some former colleagues spoke secretly and protected their anonymity. Hindsight showed that going public was the best strategy against being sued. The media identified clear accountability lines from Woomera to the office of a senior government minister in Canberra. In the volatile political climate that surrounded the child abuse allegations, neither the Immigration Department nor the multinational company followed through with a lawsuit.

During those tense days, I learned about the power of mass-emails, and circulated my side of the story. Other members of the online community responded with personal messages of congratulation for standing against the tide, and with emotional support. There also was practical support such as legal advice, information about human rights obligations under international law, or simple instructions on how to send email to a mailing list. My new contacts confirmed that the issues at stake were beyond my personal fears, beyond the wrath of management, beyond disapproval from colleagues. Until then, ambivalence had clouded my thinking as I juggled my responsibilities between loyalty to a former employer and my civic duty. Through dialogue within the online community, my vision became clear. I had become a human rights activist.

Many refugee advocacy groups established their websites during 2001. I shall now identify some characteristics of on-line communities, and then explore how asylum seeker supporters occupy their virtual space. Early publications considered online communities a double edged sword. On the one hand, there was the potential "Orwellian Nightmare" of the computer world, coupled with the capacity of technology to enhance freedom (Gordon, 1985, p 149). More than a decade later, Heim warns of the "ensnaring qualities" of the "net" and the "web" (Heim, 1998, p 144), with a reality so powerful "that nothing outside cyberspace can regulate or define it" (p 161). Other writers (such as Anderson, 1999) consider the online world as a "fluid" and "open system" that is "more common among the more prosperous, the higher educated, the more mobile". Rather than all-embracing, Anderson views cyberspace as "an increasing condition of contemporary life", with the challenge to juggle the conflicting demands between various communities.

What motivates people to become involved in the first place? Plant (2004) suggests that online communities derive from the desire of humans to connect. He argues that in the deregulated internet environment, a sense of community is derived from the "sites' commonality of intent" which "generates community participation". From Plant's perspective, one can readily see how the proclaimed intent of most refugee advocacy sites, their human rights content, and their calls to action, support the notion that the purpose of the online community is to safeguard human rights.

Community does not develop from connected computer wires. Wilson argues that in addition, there must be something offline, something that "drives the participation and connects with political activity outside that community". Without such connection, Wilson argues, we are stuck with two theoretical choices: an online community as an ontological entity that does not require action, or "a phenomenological experience which engages our minds and not our bodies" (Wilson, 2000, p 654). Otherwise, she argues, such online world may exist in a "social vacuum".

The literature identifies three key ingredients that sustain virtual communities; boundaries, diversity, and trust. Within these inclusion/exclusion boundaries, the community is kept alive by "more or less symbolic maintenance of borders" through shared interests, belonging, and a firm grounding of the internet in local issues (Gotved, 2002). The next section shows that many approaches are acceptable within these boundaries. As the internet welcomes difference, it also creates "an ideal networking opportunity, and access to publicly available information" (Stevenson, 2002). This networking is crucial for activists, as they co-ordinate their activities. A cross-sectional analysis of 663 members of thirty-six online communities (Ridings, 2002) identifies trust as the most sustaining ingredient for online communication.

Diverse approaches toward a common goal

I shall now argue that the online community for refugee rights in Australia has found this middle ground between a virtual and a firmly grounded online world.

A Google search for "refugee support" comes up with 880,000 listings. If the search is restricted to Australian sites, three are 57,400 listings. Whilst there is much variation in the details of site construction and ways of presenting the information, there are many common threads. Most are not friends of the Howard government. Many start with information on the group, and also present educational material that seeks to rebut the government view of asylum seekers as law breakers and trespassers. The message may be displayed in words, photos, children's drawings, or cartoons. Graphics are usually available free for download. In addition, pro-refugee support sites have their unique method that reflects the personal styles and talents of their members, united by human rights advocacy.

"Not all these activists are in Woomera trying to tear down fences. Some, in fact, wear business suits and sit in boardrooms or run advertising agencies. Others live in country towns and have ordinary jobs" (Bartlett, 2002).

Despite this diversity, all are activists. They just choose to work differently. Defence for Children International for instance, at, called for a full judicial inquiry in June 2000 over concerns of the potential for child abuse inside the immigration lock-ups (AAP, 2000a). The group renewed its calls after the media reported the allegations of the Woomera nurses (AAP, 2000b). Other activities include liaising with the United Nations on a range of children's' rights issues.

Chilout (Children out of Detention) at focuses on the fate of asylum seeker children. They achieve their goal by speaking at schools and actively involving community members, especially children. Chilout organised a group of teenagers with a petition of 5000 signatures, "to lobby Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone for the release of 158 children into the community" (Phillips, 2004). Chilout also took a reporter to a tour of the Villawood detention centre in Sydney (Henderson, 2002), at a time when Australians were glowing with messages of good-will and Christmas cheer.

As is the case with any community, online supporters mobilised quickly at times of emergencies. In mid-2003, the Australian government struck a deal with the Iranian government. As a result, some individuals who did not pass the Australian refugee test, were forcibly sent back to Iran. Amid fears that two deported people were "executed, at the hands of the Iranian authorities" (AAP, 2003), the National Anti Deportation Alliance (NADA) was set up. NADA coordinated national campaigns that targeted international airports across Australia. At Brisbane airport, activists distributed pamphlets that had "a wooden crucifix with the words "love thy neighbour" engraved on it". Incoming passengers read the words "Welcome to the land of sun, surf, detention centres and institutionalised child abuse" (Newscom, 2003). The alliance does not have its own website, but uses email as a tool to coordinate its Australia-wide mass campaigns, often at short notice. Access to the restricted mailing list is via

Project SafeCom has a network of 4300 email addresses that connects with sixty Internet groups [3]. In part, Project SafeCom functions as "an unofficial clearing house for news out of detention centres" (Williams & Karvelas, 2003). During a hunger strike that spread across all Australian detention centres in early 2003, SafeCom co-ordinator Jack Smit argued in the off-line world that "Mr Howard was attempting to poison the minds of Australians ... with misinformation about asylum seekers" (Shaw, 2003).

The loosely knit Refugee Action Collective (RAC) at, has no formal membership register, contributions or application forms. Anybody can join the mailing list. By focusing on grassroots activism, RAC members may be seen at street rallies, outside DIMIA offices, or swing off the rafters at the Maribyrnong detention centre in Melbourne. When a detained asylum seeker jumped to his death in December 2000 to prevent his pending deportation, RAC activists drew attention to his life-and death struggle and occupied the rooftops at Maribyrnong until police intervened [4].

The Melbourne based Spare Rooms for Refugees site "is a web-based register of volunteers who wish to offer accommodation to refugees on temporary protection visas or bridging visas". The site has many links, and information on how to help refugees who live in the community. Spare Rooms for Refugees is always looking for more people who accommodate a refugee in their home.

Under the motto "When you know the facts you will open your heart", Rural Australians for Refugees was set up in Bowral, just days before the re-election of the Howard government in November 2001 (Coombs, 2003). Members at oppose "the inhumane and bizarre policy" of the government.

Another group describes itself as "ordinary Australians who are appalled at the inhumane treatment of refugees by our government". Yet its methods are far from ordinary. The logo is a boat, representative of how the first white people arrived in Australia, and how asylum seekers arrive now. During "a daring political protest, the artists projected an 11m image of a First Fleet sailing ship above the word boatpeople on to one of the main sails" of the Sydney Opera House. A photograph of this play of lights can be downloaded from

This sketch of some pro-asylum seeker groups with an online presence shows that there are many ways to protect human rights. Cyberspace, rather than devouring those who enter, proved nothing more than a public notice board that communicates with other activists. In a unique way of harnessing the personal approaches and talents of its members, the online community has created harmony through its own diversity. This community defends the human rights of asylum seekers, as the Howard government attacks human rights and finances naval blockades to keep asylum seekers out of Australia.


[1] The figures quoted in this newspaper article may be viewed at

[2] The parliamentary inquiry confirmed that the company suppressed an investigation at that time. Seven months after the alleged incident, South Australian child protection authorities did not substantiate the sexual abuse allegations.

[3] Personal communication from Jack Smit at Project SafeCom.

[4] Such radical protests are not without reason. A coronial inquiry later found "that Viliami Tanginoa would still be alive if Australasian Correctional Management staff had properly managed the incident" (Crawford, 2003).


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AAP. (2000b, 30 Nov). Childrens group calls for judicial inquiry into Woomera. The Age.

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