Occupying the Mantra Rooftop for Refugees: An Interview With WACA’s Sam Castro

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Mantra Rooftop for Refugees

Right now, there are over 65 former offshore refugee detainees being held at the Mantra Hotel in the Melbourne suburb of Preston. Brought to Australia under the provisions of Medevac, these men with compromised health are now fearing for their lives due to the threat of COVID-19.

Despite being under the care of the Australian government, no attempt has been made to provide them with extra protection during the pandemic. They’re unable to practice social distancing inside. And the Serco guards watching over them increase the virus risk, as they come and go every day.

As a sign of just how drastic the situation has become in this alternative place of detention (APOD), a 32-year-old Tamil man attempted to take his own life this week. It seems the threat of COVID had only intensified his situation, after having spent 9 months in limbo within the confines of the Mantra.

And these are not the only people who fled persecution and came to Australia seeking assistance in this position. Indeed, there are currently over 1,400 detainees being held in onshore immigration facilities and alternatives places in conditions that significantly heighten their risk of infection.

Mantra Refugee protest

Release them

At 7.30 am on 11 May, a group of activists from the Whistleblowers, Activists and Communities Alliance (WACA) checked into the Mantra Hotel. They were then able to make their way onto the rooftop to hang banners over the side, protesting the continued incarceration of the men.

The demonstrators were calling for the immediate release of all immigration detainees into the community. And for their troubles, they were eventually carted off by Victoria police and promptly slapped with pandemic fines that amount to $1,652 each.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to WACA organiser Sam Castro about the fate of a group of people who risked their lives to come here, that have since been incarcerated on an island for close to seven years, and are now locked in cramped conditions as a deadly virus spreads across the globe.

Refugees need justice

Firstly, on Tuesday morning, a group of activists checked into a room at the Mantra Hotel and subsequently carried out a rooftop protest.

Sam, the action looks as if it might have been quite difficult to pull off. What actually happened? And what was involved?

It’s a difficult question to answer, because we don’t want to give away our strategies. But, what I can tell you is that eight people checked into rooms on Monday.

That was the accumulation of months of testing. And there were multiple plans depending on how far they got.

The hopeful plan was some would be able to make it onto the roof, while others were barricaded in one of the rooms.

The activists would then be able to drop banners off the building and maintain those spaces as long as possible.

Obviously, the aim was to draw attention to the fact that the Mantra Hotel is now considered an alternative place of detention or as we like to call it, a detention prison.

We also wanted to draw attention to all onshore and offshore detainees that need to be released into the community.

Mantra rooftop

As you’ve just mentioned, the activists were demonstrating about the over 60 former offshore asylum-seeking detainees being held in the Mantra, in what are now life-threatening conditions due to COVID-19.

How would you describe what’s happening to these men during the pandemic?

I would say this is just a continuation of the torture and abuse of their human rights that has been going on for many of them since they were taken against their will and without consent to Manus Island.

The reality is that despite Daniel Andrews and the federal government saying we are all in this together, the opportunities that the pandemic has provided to show solidarity, mutual aid, compassion and empathy for the most vulnerable has not been extended to these detainees.

Some of the men in the Mantra have now been in detention for seven years. Some were brought to the hotel a year ago under the Medevac legislation.

We’re in close contact with them, and we can tell you that many of those men have not had the urgent medical treatment that they were evacuated for.

They have not been put in touch with lawyers or case workers. And they don’t know the status of their claims.

So, these men have been dumped and warehoused in a hotel that’s part of a massive international chain that makes billions of dollars and is now making money off detention.

These men have been put in further psychological trauma, because the Serco guards on level 3 don’t practice physical distancing. And the detainees already have comprised health systems.

This just seems to be a deliberate continuation of abuse and psychological torture. They can’t go outside. And they get one hour in the gym in the basement, escorted by guards.

. It’s not so surprising from the federal government, because they don’t seem to have much compassion for anyone that’s vulnerable.

But, Daniel Andrews could be playing a role. He could be saying we don’t want hotel chains imprisoning refugees. He could be stepping up and asking Victoria police not to arrest people that are protesting for human rights.

Instead, they let 150 gather to talk about 5G and the conspiracy theory of COVID on the steps of parliament. But, the eight activists at the Mantra have already been fined the $1,652 lockdown fine, and they’re going to face court probably over trespass.

It seems that the COVID response has been sadly a continuation of the abuse of their human rights. They came seeking our help, and this is what we’ve done to them. We should be really ashamed. 

What they’ve done to Farhad highlights the punitive measures that they’ll deploy against anyone who speaks out and protests for their rights.

The men are terrified that the Serco guards are going to bring COVID in there, and they’ll get really sick and die. Some of them have been on this journey for eight years from the time they fled their country.

Let them out

Highlighting how desperate the situation is for the Mantra detainees, one of them tried to take his own life this week.

This young, vulnerable person is in desperate need of medical attention and psychological support. He has already been through so much torture and abuse, it’s just shameful.

They’re all at their wits’ ends. There is not even a pretence of the government working through their cases and getting their health sorted. Everything that Dutton spews out in public is a lie. And we have to accept that they will continue playing politics with people’s lives.

We’ve been going up and down with these men since Manus. If you’re a young man, with a decade stripped out of your life, imprisoned at the hands of the country you sought help from, it’s probably difficult not to want to self-harm.

He is okay. He’s in hospital. At least, we can be grateful that he didn’t harm himself to the point of death. But, all of them are very unwell and need help.

One of the cruellest ironies of the men’s situation at the Mantra, is some of them are in rooms that look across Bell Street, where there’s a community health centre directly across the road.

It has doctors in it that are trained in dealing with the complexities of refugee health issues. These doctors actually helped prepare a lot of the cases for Medevac. They’re 100 metres across the road, and these men still can’t get healthcare.

The level of cruelty in that is just despicable, when they could just get those Serco guards to take them across the road, so they could start getting the healthcare that’s their right and that they desperately need.

There is nothing in this system that’s set up to actually welcome, support and bring these people into our communities.

Australia should be ashamed that it signed up to the Refugee Convention, and now it’s got people in an inner city suburb being warehoused and ignored.

Mantra Protest

And lastly, Sam, everyone in the wider community is now focused on the reopening of the economy. The lifting of the COVID-19 restrictions is due to the low infection rate in Australia.

Do you think the men at the Mantra are at any less risk from the killer virus now that society is looking towards opening back up?

In my opinion, the decision to begin easing restrictions is premature. You only have to look at what’s happening around the world in other countries.

What our leaders and the people that support the lifting of restrictions are saying is that their individual and economic needs are more important than actually protecting the most vulnerable people in our communities.

We should stay in lockdown longer. I have three children. I don’t want them to go back to school at this time. It’s an extraordinary risk for the teachers and their families.

It just seems there has been a decision made that the economy will come before community.

The consequence of that is whether it’s the men in the Mantra or MITA, or refugees in the community on temporary visas that can’t access medical care, all of these people are going to be more vulnerable to catching COVID-19 and not being treated properly.

I would ask the community to really look at what the government is putting out. It seems this is a recipe where the weakest and the most vulnerable might have to be sacrificed and die, so that someone can go to the pub, or a cafe or play the pokies. It’s appalling.

The community, both here in Australia and overseas, seems to have learnt nothing from the pandemic. The clear reality is that much of what drives capitalism is not necessary for us to survive and be well with each other.

I had high hopes when this first began that this would enable us to reflect on the societies that we’ve created and the systems we’re living under, in terms of neoliberalism both politically and economically. But, it seems some of those opportunities have not been grabbed.

So, now we’re not only ready to risk the vulnerable by reopening, but we’re also giving away so many of our rights to surveillance. As an activist, I know what it’s like to be surveilled.

The public should recognise that there are many refugees within our communities already that don’t have access to healthcare and aren’t able to work.

There are also amazing people in the community, who are saying that another 67 men are not going to make a big difference.

These people are saying we have homes. We have spare rooms. We can help them physically isolate. We can help with their medical issues, because the government has failed every single one of them.

We can’t see why they can’t be released into the community. And more broadly, the medical experts are very clear that people in mass detention or prisons are all at high risk, just in the same way as is being seen in nursing homes.

Lifting the restrictions does not change the risk. It actually increases the risk of people who are not protected or cared for properly in our society, including refugees.

These people will be potentially exposed and die, so that someone else can gather with their mates down at the pub.

Kurdish musician and refugee Mostafa (Moz) Azimitabar is currently being detained at the Mantra Hotel.

Moz has just released a song called Love.

The song was produced by Midnight Oil guitarist Jim Moginie. Moz was able to play it over the phone to Moginie, using a guitar that was given to him by Jimmy Barnes and his family.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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