Police are using lockdown to charge, fine, and intimidate refugee activists

16 April 2020
Anneke Demanuele

When activists took part in a car cavalcade protest calling for the release of refugees detained in a hotel in Melbourne’s north, Victoria Police used new powers to fine participants a total of nearly $50,000 and charged an organiser with “incitement”.

Prior to the 10 April protest, police warned organisers that they would be in breach of new stay at home powers that allow people to leave their house only for work, shopping, exercise or to provide care. Organisers were warned that the Refugee Action Collective (RAC) could receive a $20,000 fine and individuals a $1,652 infringement if the protest went ahead. Aware of this, participants decided that it was important to continue with the action.

On the morning of the protest, RAC member Chris Breen was arrested, held for hours, and charged with “incitement”. According to Breen, the police did not practice social distancing and even seized his teenage son’s computer.

The actions of the police illustrate the hypocritical way that these fines have been applied and that the policy has been written. It’s hard to understand why a protest, organised in a socially responsible way (pairs of people in cars), should be banned when retail and construction workers continue to work.

“Set us free”, and “Thank you” were among the placards held by refugees in the Mantra, addressed to the protesters and media down below. They have been locked inside the hotel, living in unsafe conditions. The men were transferred to Australia for medical care but, in a cruel twist of fate, are now fearing for their health as COVID-19 sweeps the country.

And it’s not just Melbourne but also in Brisbane that refugees are trapped inside hotels in legal limbo, the government refusing them visas to stay in Australia. They cannot simply return to their home countries. Men have been protesting regularly and recently held up signs explaining that they have been separated from their families for months and even years.

It is vital to protest in support of refugees. More than 1,100 doctors and health professionals have called on the government to release refugees and asylum seekers. In detention, it is impossible to socially distance, and across the globe, detainees have been protesting against unsafe conditions.

Refugees have committed no crime and came to Australia seeking safety. Instead, our government locks them up. It was heartening to see refugees calling down to us from their windows. We must continue to stand in solidarity with their struggle.

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