Lockdown laws have been used to criminalise a protest that complies with social distancing requirements and was aimed at defending some of those most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Victoria Police has informed the Refugee Action Collective (RAC) that activists will receive individual fines of $1,652, and the activist collective up to $20,000, if they attend a refugee rights protest in Preston on Saturday. This was conveyed to RAC by the Preston police and was later confirmed by the police minister. They claim the protest breaches the stay at home directions.

The protest has been called against the imprisonment and degrading conditions that refugees in the Mantra Hotel have been subjected to for months – conditions that are made substantially more dangerous during a pandemic.

Organisers adapted the protest to ensure that social distancing will be maintained, by turning the demonstration into a car cavalcade in which groups of two will converge in cars adorned with signs outside of the hotel. Speeches will be streamed from people in cars and from refugees inside the hotel to a public address system to communicate with people in cars and to make it known to those inside that they have support and solidarity. Activists have also planned for groups of one or two to get out of their cars, one at a time, to chalk messages on the pavement.

By any objective judgement, the protest will be less risky than a trip to the shops and immeasurably safer than going to work. To date, Victoria Police has not issued fines to bosses who continue to force hundreds of workers into close proximity in factories, warehouses and non-essential fast food outlets.

Refugees in the Mantra have been detained in their rooms for more than eight months. Their only crime has been to seek asylum. For that, they have been subjected to untold torture and misery. They have spent years detained on Manus Island or Nauru, some for up to seven years. Now, after being transferred to Australia on medical grounds, they find themselves in the same conditions: locked up, treated like dirt, without any knowledge of what the future holds except more danger.

Mantra management have happily converted a section of the drab suburban hotel into a prison. They allow armed private security goons to patrol the corridors and rooms, into which 60 refugees have been crammed. The refugees were previously allowed to go outside only by applying to visit the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation detention centre, where they can walk around in a cage for a short allotment of time. 

Outside “privileges” have now been revoked on health and safety grounds. Meanwhile, hundreds remain in overcrowded spaces, where there is no possibility for social distancing even for the many refugees who have serious health conditions that make them high risk. And they have not been given access to basic hygiene. It has been reported that, for a period, the guards denied them soap to use in the shower. The one thing a hotel boasting hundreds of rooms is likely to have a disproportionate supply of is small individually wrapped cakes of soap.

The obviously unsafe conditions faced by refugees makes the hypocrisy of the police ban on protest even more galling. There is no universal concern for safety from the government. Instead, it is picking and choosing the activities it deems to be unsafe based on its pre-existing prejudices and interests.

As long as refugees are locked up like cattle, and as long as the government insists that non-essential industry must be able to remain open, it has absolutely no credibility and no right to determine what is and isn’t essential. And refugee supporters have a responsibility to highlight the plight of refugees and defend our right to do so.

The right to protest is something the state will happily dispense with. For our side, it is an essential and precious right. Some, like refugees in the Mantra, have nothing but their right to protest to rely on for a chance at a safe and dignified life. Refugees in Australia's detention system have a long history of inspiring and courageous collective resistance. By writing, speaking out, marching, hunger striking, and finding ingenious ways to evade censorship, they've reached out to the population of Australia to implore us to stand alongside them.

In response to the pandemic, refugees have protested once again, with the detainees in Mantra making placards that read: “What is our crime? We do not want to get COVID-19”.

Far from being oblivious to health and safety measures, refugees and their supporters have been demanding them. More broadly, working-class people are best placed to reorganise their lives and activities to allow for social distancing and quarantining. The state should financially facilitate this reorganisation, but the police should not be empowered to be the arbiters of social safety with unprecedented rights to intervene into all aspects of life.

That they have been means that people will be punished rather than assisted in this time of crisis. And it means that perfectly safe protests can be criminalised – as we are seeing. In the longer term, the state will be better placed to get away with bans, surveillance and other forms of intrusion and repression.

Rather than back down, RAC has decided to postpone the protest to next Friday, April 10 at 2pm.

It’s essential that we protest to defend the health and lives of refugees. Their situation is dire. We need to pressure the government to release them into the community and to provide the necessary shelter and resources.

By showing our opposition to the government’s cruel treatment we can give the detained refugees some confidence that their desperate calls for support are not falling on deaf ears. Refugee rights activists are determined that this protest will go ahead.

But we need support. We urge all progressive organisations to give their public support to the protest, to contribute cars to the cavalcade and to push back against this attack on civil liberties.


Correction: as originally published, this article gave an incorrect date for the follow-up protest scheduled by RAC for April 10.