Welcome to Country: Lidia Thorpe on the Mantra Refugees

by Paul Gregoire

Right now, governments around the country are in the midst of a staged lifting of the COVID-19 restrictions that have been set in place for the last couple of months. And while many out there in the community are breathing a sigh of relief, the same can’t be said for those in detention.

Doctors for Refugees president Dr Barri Phatarfod explained a fortnight ago that the easing of restrictions “will automatically translate to an increased rate of community infection”, and people in detention will be exposed to this heightened risk.

This is certainly the case for the more than 60 former offshore asylum-seeking detainees held at the Mantra Hotel in the Melbourne suburb of Preston. These men were flown to Australia because their conditions need medical treatment, however they’ve simply been dumped and denied it.

After six years of harsh prison-like conditions on Manus, these chronically ill men are now locked up in a hotel, where they cannot take protective measures against the killer virus. And they’re being watched over by guards that don’t practice social distancing and come and go on a daily basis.

Set them free

Last Saturday, more than 120 activists took part in a socially distant compliant protest outside the Mantra, calling for these vulnerable men to be released. Each one of the refugees has been offered a place to stay in the community, where they can safely practice preventative measures.

Lidia Thorpe was amongst the protesters. The Gunnai-Kurnai and Gunditjmara woman pointed out that in contrast to the inhumanity being shown by the government in Canberra, the local Wurundjeri people – whose land the Mantra is on – have already welcomed them to country.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Ms Thorpe about how these people who fled persecution in their countries should be treated with compassion when they’ve come here seeking help, and why it’s of utmost importance to keep up the fight.

Firstly, Lidia, what do you think about the government continuing to detain these refugees, who have compromised health, in the Mantra Hotel during the COVID-19 pandemic?

It’s criminal. It’s inhumane. And it’s a total disregard for human rights. It’s a major human rights violation.

It shows the lack of empathy and care that this government has towards people seeking asylum in this country.

The land the hotel is situated upon is that of the Wurundjeri people. You mentioned at the rally that the local First Nations people see things differently to the government when it comes to the treatment of these men. Can you expand on that?

The men have had a formal welcome to country. They had a senior elder perform a ceremony on the grounds of the Mantra.

That ceremony was to formally welcome all of those men onto Wurundjeri country, meaning that they’re allowed to be here. They’re allowed to be free on Wurundjeri country, as long as they obey the laws of this land.

And the laws of this land, according to our cultural ways – and not just Wurundjeri, but all clans and nations across the country – is that you’re welcome on country if you care for it, you look after country, and you don’t harm the country, or anything connected to it .

So, that’s people and animals. All that comes from country you cannot harm. You must protect and preserve it in the way we have for thousands of generations.

Aunty Di Kerr is a senior elder. And she cried while she was doing that welcome to country. When I called her to ask if she’d be prepared to do it, she told me that she’d been worrying about these men for months. She was wondering what she could do as a traditional elder of the land.

She wanted to do that from her heart, but also as one of the authorities of this country.

So, did the welcome to country take place last Saturday?

No. It took place around a month ago. We had a few people attend on the day. And those people were asked to leave the premises of the Mantra.

They haven’t allowed any protesters or anybody who is not staying at the hotel or employed by it to be on the actual premises.

But, Aunty Di asserted her sovereign rights and said, “No. I’m not doing this welcome to country ceremony, where these men cannot see me. I am doing it on the grounds.”

So, she actually did it in the car park on the grounds of the Mantra.

One of the Mantra detainees tried to take his own life last week. What does this tell us about the situation these people are now in?

They came here for medical attention, and they still haven’t received it nine months later. The young fella that tried to take his life was here on mental health grounds and had nothing – no support or medical treatment.

That tells me that these men are in desperate need of freedom and medical attention. And it tears my heart that these men are giving up hope.

During the conversations that I have been having with Moz and Farhad, I have been saying, “We have to maintain the fight brothers. We can’t give up. If we give up, others will.”

I feel like giving up sometimes with the fight that I am fighting. But, if we do that, then people will lose hope.

It’s up to us to continue this fight, so that people have some kind of hope and continue to maintain some kind of strength through this absolute breach of their human rights.

Lastly, Lidia, as you’ve mentioned, these men were brought to Australia under Medevac and have been left at the hotel without being given any treatment.

And now that the pandemic has broken out, they’ve been left there with no added protection.

What should be happening with these men during COVID-19? And further, what should happen to them following the pandemic?

They should be in the community. They have something to contribute. The Mantra is around the corner from my house. These people are my neighbours. And they should be allowed to live freely.

We can go through the process of visas and temporary visas to ensure that they have some kind of safeguard.

But, in the meantime, we have so many volunteers out in the community willing to help. This is one of the most progressive parts of the country. This is the Northcote electorate. It’s a very progressive area.

There are many, many people that have opened their homes and said that these men have a room to go to when they’re free.

They’re not a risk to society. They’re not criminals. And they should be contributing to our society.

We have incredible artists and musicians that are locked up for no reason that should be in our community participating in our everyday business.

Author

Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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