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Taken from The Guardian (Apr 16, 2015)

Michael Franti joins call to ’stop the plane’ of asylum seekers to Nauru

Call by outspoken US musician to cease transfers from Australia come after
reports of detainees protesting and acts of self-harm at Darwin detention centre

by Helen Davidson

Michael Franti and his band Spearhead, who are touring Australia, were scheduled to perform for asylum seekers inside Darwin’s Wickham Point detention centre on Wednesday when the protest started.
Photograph: Kabir Dhanji/EPA

US musician Michael Franti has spoken out against Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, amid calls for the government to “stop the plane” and cease transfers offshore to Nauru detention centre.

The call from the outspoken singer – who is touring Australia – as well as refugee advocates and the Australian Greens came after Northern Territory police and paramedics were called to Darwin’s Wickham Point detention centre on Wednesday night, responding to a detainee protest which allegedly involved breaking down an internal fence.

Guardian Australia and other media were contacted by people inside the centre to say there had been acts of self-harm by detainees, including a woman who is five months pregnant. They said a large group of detainees had broken through a fence between a section of the family compound and an interview area where some people were being held.

The group then sat on the ground in protest against what they believed were impending transfers of at least two families, including the pregnant woman and her husband to Nauru, one source said.

Photos obtained by the ABC show overturned bins and dozens of people gathered at a fence.

“The people are so angry and they are trying to break the fences and help them,” said one person at the centre, adding the families “are afraid of rape and abuse in Nauru”.

Franti and his band Spearhead, who have been touring the country following their appearance at Bluesfest, were expected to perform for detainees at the centre on Wednesday, but were unable to go inside due to the disturbance, he told Guardian Australia.

“As we were waiting we were told there had been some kind of a disturbance there and we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to get in,” he said, adding that the band members listened to news updates on the situation on local radio, including reports of self-harm, while they waited in an administration area.

The musician said it did not make sense to send families to Nauru “where there had been many reports of alleged sexual abuse”.

The Moss report released last month detailed credible evidence of physical and sexual abuse of asylum seekers – including of children – at the Australian-run detention facility on Nauru.

“I call on the minister to stop the plane from flying tonight,” Australian Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said on Thursday.

“While there is an ongoing review into the circumstances of abuse in Nauru, while there is a parliamentary inquiry under way, it is totally inappropriate for the minister to continue to send families there.”

A spokeswoman for the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, on Thursday disputed the detainees’ claims, and told the Australian no pregnant woman was due to be transferred.

The incident involved minor property damage and no staff or detainees were injured, said the spokeswoman, although she did not provide comment on reported instances of self-harm.

The Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network (Dassan) disputed the government’s characterisation of the incident as minor, and said in a statement it was “a widespread protest against the transfer of especially vulnerable people to Nauru”.

The group also called for a moratorium on offshore transfers until recommendations from the Moss report into Nauru and the Cornall review into Manus Island were acted on.

The pregnant woman at the centre of the protest action is among more than 19 detainees who have allegedly self-harmed or attempted suicide in recent weeks at Wickham Point, allegedly out of fear of transfer to Nauru. An older Iranian woman who had witnessed one incident had a heart attack and was transported to hospital, said Ben Pynt, a spokesman for Dassan.

More than 15 men have also engaged in hunger strikes since December last year, protesting against the rejection of their asylum claims and indefinite detention, with one becoming critically ill.

St John Ambulance service confirmed it had been called out to the centre this week, but spokesman Craig Garraway, said any further information about patients would have to come from the Department of Immigration.

Members of the police metropolitan patrol group (MPG) and the dog squad were sent in on Wednesday afternoon.

Advocates said the fire department also attended, but a spokeswoman for NT police, fire and emergency services could not confirm.

The immigration department directed Guardian Australia’s queries to tweets published on Wednesday evening, and said it had nothing more to add.

“Reports of a riot at Wickham Pt IDC are incorrect,” read the tweets. “A disturbance occurred involving detainees that resulted in minor property damage. Police are attending the facility in accordance with normal operating procedure.”

Cutbacks to medical services at the centre, which no longer operate at night, have also contributed to rising tensions at Wickham Point, and have put a strain on local ambulance services, the NT News reported.

Franti told Guardian Australia Wednesday’s experience at the Darwin facility was an “eye-opener”.

“I’ve been to a lot of places in the world where there is intense conflict taking place, everywhere from Iraq 11 months after the war started there, to Israel, Palestine, Gaza, and I’ve played in prisons many many times in America, in some of the roughest prisons like Folsom, and San Quentin prisons. But I’ve never been anywhere where people were detained indefinitely without a crime,” Franti said.

“[In] this situation, especially with families, it’s hard for me to understand it, to get my head around it, also to understand why anyone would be considering sending families back to a detention centre where there had been many reports of alleged sexual abuse and sexual abuse of children.”

Franti also said he had met some asylum seekers in Brisbane who had family on Nauru.

“Just hearing from them, they told me it wasn’t so much the conditions in which they were held – they learned to live within that system – but the fear of not knowing when or if they would ever be released and where they would end up.”

Following Franti’s unsuccessful attempt to perform for the Wickham Point detainees, they joined a small vigil outside in view of the recently closed Blaydin point facility nearby.

“I was sitting there looking at it and thinking that someday all of these facilities will be closed down and will be historical relics of a dark time in history, like the detention centres I visited in California that were there for interning Japanese Americans in world war two,” he said.

“Hopefully at some point in our near future these places will be closed down and we’ll have a plaque on them that this is the place that we remember a bad mark on our history.”

Franti said the band had offered to return at any time while they were in Darwin.


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