The Campaign Against Racism and Fascism has organised many rallies against hotel detention in Melbourne over the past several months. (Photo: Lachlan Keller)

Refugee solidarity marchers clash with police

A rally for refugee rights turned ugly on Saturday as police attempted to block demonstrators from reaching the Park Hotel in Carlton, where some asylum seekers are being detained.

The sanctioned rally calling for an end to hotel detention of people seeking asylum was escorted down Swanston St before police formed a line across the road, contrary to established event plans.

Police push protestors back, determined to not let them pass. While it becomes quite physical, there are no arrests and no one is injured. (Photo: Lachlan Keller)

Demonstrators attempted to walk through, then circumvent the police line, which caused officers to break ranks and reform outside the hotel.

Once there, the rally continued without further conflict and speakers such as organiser Omar Hassan brought the focus back to the issue at hand.

“What’s important about today, is not the police attempt to restrict our right to protest,” he said. “It’s the fact that there are men up there who had eight years of their lives taken away from them. And it’s about the entire system that works so hard to maintain the status quo of these men being tortured.”

Advocates continue to address the crowd, undeterred by the police’s show of force. (Photo: Lachlan Keller)

The detainment of asylum seekers in hotels across the country has been a controversial issue since they were transferred from offshore detention facilities under the now defunct “Medevac” legislation.

Under this legislation, some asylum seekers requiring urgent medical care to were transferred to detention facilities in Brisbane, Darwin and Melbourne. Roughly 60 men have been detained in Melbourne hotels since 2019.

Legal challenges to transferring them back to offshore facilities, and a 2013 law barring people who arrived by boat from settling in Australia, mean these men are in legal limbo – detained indefinitely without direct legal options available.

An aboriginal installation as part of the Yirramboi festival inadvertently forms a type of wreath next to a picture of George Floyd. The intersection of race and state violence is a key concept in the refugee advocacy community, both in Australia and the US. (Photo: Lachlan Keller)

Some refugees who have been released from hotel detention have described it as ‘worse than the jail’, where at least they had access to some recreation facilities.

In its 2019 report into Australia’s detention facilities, the Australian Human Rights Commission found hotel detention should only be used for short periods of time, and longer timeframes have “significant negative consequences for [detainees] health and wellbeing”.

Hassan also reflected upon the efficacy of the current detention program; refugee advocate groups often argue allowing people to live in community detention or granting bridging visas is more humane as well as cost effective for the government.

A first nations man leads the march down Swanston St. Refugee advocacy has the support of many first nations people, seeing the same racist systems oppressing both groups. (Photo: Lachlan Keller)

According to the Refugee Council of Australia, the annual cost per person was as follows:

• more than $346,000 to hold someone in detention in Australia;
• $103,343 for an asylum seeker to live in community detention in Australia; and
• $10,221 for an asylum seeker to live in the community on a bridging visa while their claim is processed

“The amounts of money and time and energy spent on punishing innocent people is something to reflect on,” Hassan said. “It’s something to think about.”

“Why does our society do this?”