In 2019, 65 refugees were imprisoned in the Mantra Hotel in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.
The men had fled danger and persecution from across the world: the legacy of imperialist war in Afghanistan, the Sri Lankan government’s genocidal persecution of Tamils, the theocracy in Iran, and more. After years languishing in Australia’s offshore concentration camps, they were brought to the mainland after doctors determined that they needed medical help. The so-called "Medevac" bill was passed by parliament against the wishes of the government; it was repealed less than a year later. Instead of being cared for, the refugees have been locked away in squalid conditions, constantly under guard—the hotel corridors are patrolled by armed private contractors—and unable to even open their windows more than a crack. Their imprisonment has lasted a year.
One of the detainees told the Guardian: “It’s more difficult than what we experienced in Manus Island. Maybe one hour of gym–that’s the only time that I am not in my room. The rest of the day, I’m lying on my bed or sitting on the chair".
The opening of a prison in the middle of a busy Melbourne suburb did not go unchallenged. For months, local supporters organised daily protests outside the Mantra to show solidarity with the refugees inside and to let them know they were not forgotten. As Melbourne’s lockdown eased, larger demonstrations were also organised by campaign groups like the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism and Refugee Action Collective.
Standing outside the hotel, we protesters could see the imprisoned men through the hotel’s windows, communicate and gesture in solidarity. The detainees waved, hung blankets out the windows like flags, shone lights, and held up their arms, crossed at the wrist, in a gesture of resistance; on the ground outside, we copied the gestures back, and spoke to them through our megaphones. We were fighting together against the brutal actions of the government.
In December of 2020, rumours began to circulate the men in the Mantra were to be moved. Nobody knew where. To an old detention centre? Back offshore? Security guards gleefully spread misinformation, and the government communicated nothing to the innocent men that it treated like playthings. We quickly organised protests, at night and in the day, outside the hotel, to show that any move would be monitored: we’d know where they were going, and would try to keep showing our solidarity.
Eventually, in the midst of a protest, police vans—backed up by cops on horses and in riot gear—took the men to the Park Hotel in Melbourne’s CBD. You might know Park under its previous brand, Rydges: it was a COVID-19 quarantine facility that contributed to Melbourne’s second wave of coronavirus. Now it has picked up a new contract: imprisoning refugees.
Mostafa Azimitabar, a prominent leader of resistance among refugees in detention, reported that the conditions there were even worse than the Mantra. “I had a window and I could see people outside smiling at us, waving at us. Now I have no window,” he told SBS. “I think this is one of their plans...They want people in Australia not to see our faces.” Since the refugees were moved to the new site, the windows they do have access to have been tinted - and these ones are locked shut.
Those now locked up in the Park Hotel are only a small section of a wider refugee population who are subjected to oppressive treatment by Australia’s government. There are more like them in hotels like Brisbane’s Kangaroo Point, as well as hundreds of men, women and even children in onshore detention centres around the country. The facilities are literally prisons, in which refugees—accused of no crime—are detained indefinitely without charge. That’s not to mention those still on Nauru, or the thousands of refugees in “community detention” or on protection visas who are left impoverished, without any substantial state support; or the unknown number who have simply been deported and never heard from again.
Today’s regime of mandatory detention, under which migrants without a visa are imprisoned indefinitely, originated with Paul Keating’s Labor government in the early 1990s. They sought to broadcast a “clear signal...that migration to Australia may not be achieved by simply arriving in this country and expecting to be allowed into the community”, as it was put by the immigration minister at the time. Since then, successive governments of both major parties have worked to make it harder to claim asylum, while subjecting “unlawful arrivals” to ever more barbaric conditions.
Refugees who arrive by boat have been targeted for especially brutal treatment. John Howard introduced offshore detention for such “boat people”, opening camps on Manus, Nauru, and Christmas Island. The Liberals also began removing Australia’s island territories from Australia’s legally defined “migration zone”: the area in which arrivals could apply for refugee status under Australian law. This essentially allowed the government to do what it liked with boat arrivals, without the possibility of being sued in the courts.
Kevin Rudd’s first government feinted towards winding back mandatory offshore detention, but the ALP eventually reopened the island centres under Julia Gillard. Rudd then returned in 2013 and went a step further than the Liberals: shockingly, he excised the entire Australian mainland from the migration zone, declaring outright that no-one arriving by boat would ever be allowed to settle in Australia—a policy Howard had tried and failed to implement in 2006. It was a new low in irrational brutality.
The new policy encouraged the subsequent Liberal government of Tony Abbott, who implemented Labor’s policies with vigour, as did Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison after him. Abbot’s “Operation Sovereign Borders” militarised the border. For people who had been proven to be refugees fleeing persecution, the dreaded “temporary protection visas” (TPVs) were reintroduced. Under that system, even those who succeeded in winning refugee status could be denied the right to stay permanently in Australia. Instead, they lived with the constant threat of having their right to stay revoked, to have their life upended at any moment with the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen, so that they could be returned to the country they had fled.
The offshore camps on Manus and Nauru became infamous for the physical and psychological tortures inflicted on those detained inside. In 2016, the Guardian published a set of leaks known as the “Nauru files”, detailing over 2,000 cases of “assaults, sexual abuse, self-harm attempts, child abuse and living conditions endured by asylum seekers”, calling it “a picture of routine dysfunction and cruelty”. Facilities were squalid. Refugees often faced violence from guards or local residents. Years of their lives were stolen from them. Families were separated. Many were driven to suicide. Others died after being denied life-saving medical care. Some children spent the majority of their childhoods locked away. Teenagers grew into adults without ever seeing the outside world.
This kind of brutal treatment has been designed to discourage anyone from even attempting to get to Australia. At times, politicians have cynically claimed that their destruction of refugee lives is actually about saving them from dangerous smuggling operations. Confronted with an allegation that his government had actually bribed a boat captain $30,000 to turn his boat around and return refugees to Indonesia, Tony Abbott nonsensically responded: "What we are doing is saving life at sea."
In reality, refugees are important pawns in the battles of Australia’s political elite.
For decades, Australian politicians have used refugees to distract from their own crimes by whipping up racist hatred, to promote the idea that foreign people arriving by boat are inherently dangerous and threatening, and to argue that their political rivals are putting Australia’s “sovereignty” and “security” in danger. John Howard won reelection in 2001 with a campaign that combined nationalist rhetoric about “border protection” with the wave of Islamophobia that followed 9/11 and the start of the War on Terror—a war which itself created more refugees.
As recently as 2019, Scott Morrison attacked Labor’s passage of the Medevac bill because it undermined the quest to “make Australia stronger”. According to Morrison’s government, offering some medical treatment to imprisoned refugees risked an influx of “rapists and murderers”. The Medevac bill made little real change to a system that Labor has backed from the beginning, of course. It merely tossed refugees some humanitarian crumbs, while retaining the horrific system of imprisonment. But even this was enough to provoke a major debate among Australia’s depraved political establishment.
The ALP has spent years working to prove its commitment to “national security” as champions of offshore detention. They often make statements to the right of the Liberals on the question. Shadow Minister for Home Affairs Kristina Keneally went on the attack in 2020 to accuse the government of not being strict enough on refugees who arrived by air: it was no longer just boat people we have to worry about, but plane people, too!
Australia has some of the worst immigration policies in the world, but our border regime has been the example to follow for other politicians around the globe. Donald Trump said admiringly to Malcolm Turnbull in a phone conversation that was later leaked: “You’re worse than I am!” Trump, and other politicians, would race to catch up. Indeed, Australia served as the inspiration for Trump’s expansion of the USA’s own immigration camps. The brutalisation of migrants and refugees is intimately connected to the basic logic of capitalist politics, which constantly produces violence, oppression, nationalism, and scapegoating.
Capitalism is a global system driven of competition among a wealthy minority, who constantly seek to accumulate more profits while trying to exploit the working class and discourage resistance. The world is covered with a patchwork of national states that aim to stabilise this system, to help capitalists, to crush resistance, and to make injustice seem legitimate and necessary. As capitalists compete for economic advantage, states compete for political and military dominance. Economic, political, and military competition combine to create the phenomenon of imperialism.
To make this system seem legitimate, capitalist states cultivate nationalism, convincing ordinary people that we share a fundamental common interest with the ruling class of “our” country. National borders help to foster the idea that there are those of us who belong, and those who do not.
Imperialist competition creates violent conflict and wars that leave millions without their homes, as rival capitalists fight for resources and markets, and rival states fight for greater influence on the world stage. The capitalist state’s drive to cultivate nationalism, so a more homogenous population identify more strongly with their own rulers, leads to atrocities committed against national and political minorities in numerous countries. Iran persecutes its Kurds; the Sri Lankan state wages a genocidal campaign against the Tamil population. Those targeted are often leftists or those who don’t fit into the dominant form of nationalism.
Refugees experience some of the worst horrors of capitalism. First, the system creates the conditions that force people to seek safety elsewhere. Then, the choice to provide refuge is left in the hands of a ruling class who depend on exploitation and oppression. Australia, as a powerful imperialist state, has itself played a role in creating refugees. As well as having participated in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Australia is a major ally of the Sri Lankan government, for example. Tony Abbott’s government gave a “humanitarian” gift to the genocidal Sri Lankan regime: patrol boats to help it track down and intercept refugees before they escape. When refugees get here, they find a hostile regime, led by politicians determined to demonise them in order to maintain their power, and a media ready and willing to scapegoat them.
But hope does exist. Throughout the years of barbarism, there has been inspiring resistance on the part of refugees and their supporters in Australia. One shining example was the 2002 protest at the Woomera detention centre. A thousand protesters arrived to show solidarity with those inside the camp, in the middle of the South Australian desert, and ended up breaking out several of them. Such events partly explain why the government established the offshore camps, far out of reach. The potential for solidarity exists between refugees and the broader population. The Australian government’s refugee policy is designed to crush this potential solidarity at every turn.
Some refugee advocates argue that refugees should remain quiet, to try and demonstrate that they can be loyal and obedient members of the Australian community. They discourage refugees from engaging in activism. But this accepts the basic logic of the system that we are struggling against. Refugees are not just passive recipients of charity: many of them are heroic activists, and we struggle alongside them. Some of history’s greatest revolutionaries were refugees. Karl Marx fled political persecution throughout Europe before settling in Britain; Leon Trotsky was chased across the globe by Stalin’s counter-revolution.
We need to free the refugees, to join them in struggle, and to create a world that no longer creates them. We need to reject the logic of capitalist politics: the nationalism, the imperialism, the division of the world into us-and-them, the expectation that the oppressed should be passive and accepting of the status quo. “We” aren’t on the same side as “our” politicians and “our” ruling class, who create so much horror for ordinary people--whether it be refugee camps, climate apocalypse, or crushing poverty. We are internationalists, and refugees are our comrades in a struggle for global freedom and justice. We must fight for the freedom of each individual refugee, but to free them all, we need to build a movement that can ultimately tear down the capitalist state, in Australia and throughout the world, and replace it with a world based on principles of justice, freedom, and equality, rather than violence and oppression.