RISE is the first refugee and asylum seeker organisation in Australia to be run and governed by refugees, asylum seekers and ex-detainees. Despite not having any full-time staff, RISE does not receive any funding from the federal government. Ramesh Fernandez, CEO & Founder of RISE and ex-Woomera detainee had released the following RISE Exclusive Media release on 18/4/2013 via the RISE newsletter. With his permission, Peril has decided to re-publish the article here.
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It’s been ten years since Woomera detention centre was closed but I still remember how isolated our lives were in the middle of the desert. In the beginning, visitors including media representatives, and monitoring agencies like UNHCR, Ombudsman and Amnesty International were not allowed into Woomera. Incidents of self-harm such as ingestingshampoo or cutting with razor wire were things I’d see every day.
Some nights we’d get together and speak about families and I would notice our group getting smaller, the next thing we’d hear of an attempted suicide or an act of self-harm. My memories are full of riots, people being beaten, tear gassed and friends being taken into isolation for weeks where they get locked up inside a tiny room. Have we ‘moved on’ from these distraught experiences?
Woomera immigration detention centre was built on a defence site located in South Australia, in the middle of nowhere, in the desert and about two hours drive from Port Augusta. Woomera was introduced in 1999 by the Liberal Government under John Howard, while Philip Ruddock was the immigration minister. It was closed in April 2003 and handed back to the Australian department of defence.
The detention centre began with approximately 500 asylum seekers and ended up housing close to 1500 adults, including about 500 children. Some remained in Woomera for the duration of the time it existed. Each day in Woomera was a nightmare. Sometimes I’d go to the fence on a 44 degree day and hold onto the burning hot fence thinking I was the only one but when I turned right and left I saw many others doing exactly the same thing. When I would look straight ahead the infinite red sand desert would stare straight back at me. Even the birds seemed aware of the desolateness. And from there if I walked into the mess where lunch was served, I would see an empty space filled with flies and untouched cooked food. Most people were depressed, sleeping all day with nothing to do.
In 2002 there was a big hunger strike, some stopped eating completely for days, and over 30 people, including children, sewed their lips together. During the hunger strike some started drinking shampoo and attempted suicide. After no response from the government or the DIMA manager, frustration grew daily and people ended up rioting with one asylum seeker hospitalised post jumping off the roof.
The breakout during the Easter of 2002 was something we’d never forget; when the protestors arrived to the detention centre and broke the fences. Some asylum seekers managed to escape, some got arrested by the police, some tried to jump over the razor and got stuck in the middle and were cut so badly they fainted due to blood loss. Some were crying, asking protestors to “please take me too!” and some were jammed in the middle because there were so many people in a rush to escape. As people were gathering closer to the fences the ACM guards become very aggressive and started beating and throwing people out of the fences. After a while police and the detention guards completely surrounded the situation and there was no escape. All went back to the sad reality once again.
It is a fact that the Woomera refugee and asylum seeker warehouse breached so many international human rights laws and there were so many untold human rights abuses. At that time Woomera detention centre was a clear bargaining tool regarding border control for John Howard who made so many excuses and hid the truth. I still remember his racist one-nation-pandering words: “Australia has the right to decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”
Yesterday morning, before I wrote this article, I called a few of my friends who were in detention with me in Woomera around 2002. One friend expressed the importance of helping those who went through similar things we did, some refused to say anything and others made jokes to get them through. Some of my friends are experiencing major physiological medical conditions; some are battling mental health issues including depression and alcohol abuse all due to their experiences in detention. Many still do not have Australian citizenship leading to trouble with employment and housing. They have tried to bury their scars.
It has been ten years since the Woomera detention was closed and many of us are outside now after serving a minimum of 3 -6 years in detention but the cruel experiences has impacted on us and will continue to.
Moving forward to 2013, ten years after the closure of Woomera, Australia runs over ten offshore and onshore immigration detention centres holding mostly refugees and asylum seekers who have arrived by boat. Some refugees and asylum seekers have exceeded over three years in detention. At last count, the number of detainees in detention in 2013 is about 6000…around the same number detained in 2003 when Woomera closed down.
Do we want to keep repeating the cycle and support the creation of another Woomera generation?
Take action to stop this cruel treatment of refugees.
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To see the people behind RISE, check out their Youtube video – “Rise”
For all RISE updates, check out RISE’s website
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RISE has been holding 2-day Anti–Racism Intensive Workshops, which is open to staff and volunteers of organisations that regularly interact with a diverse range of individuals and communities who experience racism, or for any individuals who are interested in and committed to racial justice. There are still spaces for their upcoming May and June workshops.
Reading materials will be provided