Why I broke the law

On Monday 11 church leaders and members – from Uniting, Anglican, Baptist and other denominations – staged a sit-in at the WA electoral office of Julie Bishop to protest the cruel treatment of children in immigration detention centres. All were charged with trespassing and held temporarily in custody at the Perth police station. Below is a reflection from one of the group, Uniting Church member Laura Vertigan.

Why I broke the law

I was one of those weirdo Christians who got arrested in Julie Bishop’s office yesterday. Australia is blessed with an excellent police force, who treated us with utter professionalism and care. Being escorted in a paddy-wagon, patted down, fingerprinted and giving DNA, then sitting for several hours in a solid glass and steel cage was both a novel, and a profoundly spiritual experience.

For years I’ve listened to the public discourse around Asylum seekers with increasing bewilderment at the direction the conversation has taken. I’ve been incredulous at the outright lies peddled in parliament, and at the readiness of so many decent, well-meaning Australians to accept these stories at face value.

Members of our group have been advocating for asylum seekers for over a decade. We have tried the “proper” channels. We have tried making appointments with government. We have signed petitions, written letters, taken to the streets in marches, only to be ignored. The Anglican Archbishops of Australia have been ignored, as has the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission.

I feel clear that the time has come to take a stand, whatever the cost. Whether a few hours of my time, or my honeymoon, or my career, if we can bring these kids to your attention, it will be worth it. As Tony Abbott himself once said: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ is the foundation of our justice. ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’ is the foundation of our mercy.”

Photo: Aaron Bunch

Photo: Aaron Bunch

In the lock-up
For something between thirty minutes and an hour (I didn’t have my watch or phone, so I can’t be sure), I was alone in my little cell with time to meditate and reflect. I am an introvert by nature, and didn’t at all mind being by myself. Those metal seats are not designed for comfort, and after a few hours my back and legs were starting to ache. I sat on the floor, but after spotting a stray pubic hair on the floor, I wasn’t inclined to stay there for long. If I was there much longer, I would have stopped caring about that hair.

I reflected that Mandela spent over six years in solitary confinement, and Aung San Suu Kyi spent a significant part of her nine years’ incarceration in solitary. Now, by no means would I suggest that my meagre few hours in an Australian lock-up can be compared to the immensity of their sacrifices, or that my little act of political defiance can be compared to people around the world today who risk flogging, torture, or death for their causes. But one thing I had in common with these people was that I was there, in part, by choice. I knew the probable consequences, and I am an adult, with the mental discipline and strategies to handle them.

Those 1138 Children
The 1138 children in Australian detention facilities today have not chosen to be there, and cannot be expected to have coping strategies for their incarceration in far worse conditions. I reflected on my 7-year old niece, a child I love fiercely, passionately, protectively. A few hours in lock up would have a lasting impact on her. Days? I can’t imagine, but I know that I would be breaking down walls to get her out.

We have incarcerated children for over a decade now, they are literally growing up in prisons. Unlike our little group, they have no charges laid against them, no trials, and no release date in sight. They have committed no crime. International law grants any individual the right to seek asylum; method of transport does not come into it. They have jumped no queue;there is no queue. Indonesia has no legislation regulating rights of asylum seekers. Australia takes in a paltry 20,000 of the world’s 15.4 million refugees per year.

When Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban, we rightly applauded her courage, and were pleased when she was safely repatriated to the UK. Would we celebrate if the UK had detained her indefinitely in an overcrowded detention camp? Or is it a fact that kids have to actually get shot in the head before we consider their needs for safety and access to education to be valid?

If you are not convinced by the ethical arguments, Julian Burnside AO QC explains the economic argument. Our current policy costs some $5 billion annually. Changing to community-based solutions would cost approximately $500 million,saving taxpayers $4.5 billion dollars. By the government’s own admission, the costs of detention far exceeds any community-based solutions. Additionally, ASIO has admitted that they do not require asylum seekers to be in detention. Beyond an initial security check, it is purely a political move.
I could go on about the facts, history, and statistics. I won’t, though. The information is all out there on the web, easy to find. I simply implore people to stop relying on information from a media olligarchy notorious for bedding politicians, and do your own research.

Our group went into that office with a clear question and intention. The question is “When will Australia release the 1138 children in immigration detention?” Our intention is to win a double-victory: the hearts of our parliamentarians, their staff, the police, and the public by approaching our cause in a non-violent, loving manner; and ultimately freedom for these innocent children caught up in a horrible situation for which, in our silence, we Australians are all complicit.

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