Is #LetThemStay Australia’s anti-apartheid moment?

  • March 9, 2016
Is #LetThemStay Australia’s anti-apartheid moment?

Something incredible is happening in Australia this summer.

The immediate catalyst was a High Court case over the fate of 267 asylum seekers – including 54 children and 37 babies – that had been receiving medical treatment in mainland hospitals. When the High Court determined that it was lawful for the government to send these asylum seekers back to indefinite detention in Australian run camps on the Pacific islands of Nauru and Manus, it provoked an explosive response from refugee rights campaigners across the country.For refugee activists across the country, suddenly it feels as if change is possible.

Offers of sanctuary poured in from religious institutions, state premiers, and the Prime Minister of New Zealand. Meanwhile, healthcare workers vowed to refuse to allow children in their care to be sent back to Nauru.

A flashpoint emerged at the Lady Cilento hospital in Brisbane, where a 12 month old baby was hospitalised for severe burns suffered while in detention in Nauru. For ten days, a 24 hour picket involving hundreds of healthcare workers, unionists and community members surrounded the hospital to support the staff. The government was forced to back down and release Baby Asha and her mother into community detention.

Under the banner of #LetThemStay, the movement is spreading. Teachers, childcare workers, nurses, doctors, university staff and students have been staging local protest actions across the country. Tens of thousands have participated in marches and vigils. Letters are being written, petitions signed, banners dropped off bridges, from boats in Sydney harbour and off the Melbourne Arts Centre spire.

For refugee activists across the country, suddenly it feels as if change is possible.

And change it must. Australia is leading the world in its punitive treatment of asylum seekers, indefinitely detaining all asylum seekers arriving by boat in government-sponsored offshore detention facilities.

From these camps, there are rampant allegations of sexual abuse of women and children, denial of adequate health treatment and, in one instance, the alleged murder of a young man called Reza Berati by G4S security personnel. Brian Owler, president of the Australian Medical Association, recently described offshore detention as a ‘state-sanctioned form of child abuse’ and as leading to ‘extreme levels of physical, emotional, psychological, and developmental distress’ for both children and adults alike. 

Paving the way for Fortress Europe?

But Australia’s tough border procedures are more than just an issue for people seeking asylum in Australia. Brian Owler, president of the Australian Medical Association, recently described offshore detention as a ‘state-sanctioned form of child abuse’.Across Europe, Australia’s asylum seeker policies have been considered as a possible way forward for dealing with the current influx of refugees from Syria, as well as ongoing flows of refugees and migrants from Africa. Briefings on Australia’s asylum seeker policy have been prepared and put before the European Parliament, while some think-tanks have put Australia forward as an example from which the EU can learn.

Last October, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott helped this situation along by using an address in London to commend his government’s approach to immigration. In this speech, Abbott argued that people fleeing across more than one border – including Syrian refugees – were ‘economic migrants’ and he urged European leaders to study the Australian experience or face ‘a tide of humanity surging through Europe and quite possibly changing it forever.’

While many in Britain and Europe dismissed Abbott’s comments, he nonetheless found an audience amongst Europe’s far-right. UKIP leader, Nigel Farage called Abbott’s stance on asylum seekers ‘heroic’. And then there were the comments of notorious right-wing columnist, Katie Hopkins, who likened Syrian refugees to cockroaches and suggested that gunships be used to stop them, before going on to say that ‘It’s time to get Australian’ on refugee boats in the Mediterranean. 

The International Alliance Against Mandatory Detention: a call to action

In the face of this situation, those of us who live outside of Australia need to stand up in the name of human rights and social justice, to support those asylum seekers being treated by the Australian government as political refuse and to amplify the voices of many thousands of refugee activists.Nigel Farage called Abbott’s stance on asylum seekers ‘heroic’.

We believe the time has come for Australia’s anti-apartheid moment.

The tide is changing on an Australia that is clinging desperately to its White Australia past. People inside and outside of Australia are standing up and challenging a system that seeks to construct physical and imagined borders that separate people based primarily on their race and creed.

It is for this reason that the International Alliance Against Mandatory Detention was founded just over a year ago. The Alliance is a network of Australian activists working and studying in cities across the world. We have chapters in London, New York, Geneva, Berlin, Santiago, Phnom Penh, and dozens of other locations, including our very own chapter in Cambridge, UK.

Here in the UK, we have held embassy pickets, candlelight vigils and photo petitions. We have participated in divestment campaigns against companies which profit from detention. We have built alliances with local refugee activists to build awareness of what is happening on Nauru and Manus. We have also released a series of videos calling on the Australian government to immediately close all detention centres, return all asylum seekers to mainland Australia, reopen community processing facilities and reconsider the policy of mandatory detention.

The Alliance finds inspiration in the history of other international solidarity movements, but especially from the British-based anti-apartheid movement.The Alliance finds inspiration in the history of other international solidarity movements, but especially from the British-based anti-apartheid movement. Politicians like Jeremy Corbyn cut their political teeth standing outside the South African embassy, in opposition to that country’s system of apartheid. While these international solidarity activists did not win the anti-apartheid struggle – that was won by South Africans – they did amplify the voices of those struggling for justice. They stood up, and through their actions of solidarity, they were part of changing global history.

The Alliance takes as our core aim the disruption of Australia’s international image as the carefree, lucky country. We want the world to know that as a leader in human rights abuses, Australia does not show a way forward for supporters of freedom and civil liberties.

Just as happened in South Africa, the ideas behind a system can seem so unflinching, so permanent, so untouchable – right up until the moment they fall.

On March 19-20, we will be joining the call for a global day of action against Australia’s mandatory detention regime, and we encourage fellow Australians abroad to join us, wherever you are.

As asylum seekers fight each day to be treated as human beings, they need to know that we hear their voices. And Australian politicians also need to know that the world is watching. This is a fight for justice for the countless lives that are being destroyed by indefinite, mandatory detention.

Will you join us?

*Stephanie Mawson [2014] is a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge, doing a PhD in History focusing on the colonisation of the Philippines and the role of ordinary Filipinos in that process. Emma Nicholls [2014] is a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge, doing a PhD in History on the intersection between economic and political structures of control and the workings of imagination in the late medieval period. Zoe Stewart [2013] is a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge, doing a PhD in Clinical Biochemistry, studying the impact of the first artificial pancreas to be fitted in pregnant women with diabetes.  This article was first published on

Stephanie Mawson

Stephanie Mawson

  • Alumni
  • Australia
  • 2014 PhD History
  • Wolfson College

I’m a history graduate from the University of Sydney with a strong interest in studying global history from the perspective of ordinary people. My research focus is the early modern Spanish empire, which is an interest I developed after travelling extensively through Latin America. My PhD thesis will examine the experience of empire in the Philippines and broader Spanish Pacific from the vantage point of non-Europeans. I strongly believe that we study history not just to understand the past but also to engage in the kind of future that we want to create. My research aims to break down some our commonly held assumptions of how global history developed by examining the frontiers of early modern empires that have often been marginalised within broader historiography. I have been active in projects of community building among history students in Australia and worked as a researcher at a large trade union on campaigns that fight the inequality experienced by Australia’s lowest paid workers.

Emma Nicholls

Emma Nicholls

  • Alumni
  • Australia
  • 2014 PhD History
  • Clare Hall

Focusing on the late medieval period, my research investigates the intersection between economic and political structures of control and the workings of imagination. I am interested not just in what we think, but how we are able to think. I completed my MA at Monash University, an Australian university with particular strengths in medieval and early modern studies. Having myself come to university via Open Learning and a community-based adult learning centre, I am passionate about ensuring that people overcoming disadvantage of all kinds have access to education. This year, it was my great delight to co-direct the inaugural Australian Youth Humanities Forum, an initiative which aims to combat perceptions that non-vocational degrees like Arts only offer viable career options to the privileged. A key aim of my time at Cambridge is to develop better ways of sharing the excitement and potential of research in the humanities with the broader community.

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