“Watered down” refugee motion highlights council division

By Katie Johnson

The City of Melbourne’s Future Melbourne committee has voted for a “watered down” refugee advocacy motion after heated debate over how to best support the 13 refugees still detained at Carlton’s Park Hotel.   

The original motion moved by Greens Cr Rohan Leppert contained a clause that requested Lord Mayor Sally Capp to call on the federal government to immediately release the men. 

But the Lord Mayor and five other councillors voted to amend the motion, removing the clause which would require her to advocate the council’s position to the Minister for Immigration Alex Hawke and Assistant Minister for Customs, Community Safety and Multicultural Affairs Jason Wood. 

The Lord Mayor said while she noted the “passion and compassion” expressed by the community towards the issue, the council needed to work with other levels of government. 

“We should never discount the economic and cultural contribution migrants and refugees make to our city,” the Lord Mayor said. 

“We should find ways to work with other levels of government to advocate for the human rights of and the improved conditions for people who are being accommodated in the Park Hotel which is in the municipality of the City of Melbourne.”  

The amended motion advocated “for the provision of medical and mental health support services” and an “explanation for the continued detention of those people” instead of requesting the men be released.  

It also removed the clause, “joins the United Nations Human Rights Council and Human Rights Committee in condemning indefinite and arbitrary detention of people seeking asylum as a gross violation of human rights”. 

In its place, the amended motion “notes all people within the City of Melbourne should be protected under the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. 

Deputy Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece said that although he felt very strongly about the issue, he was voting for the amendment as it was an “improvement”. 

“Unfortunately, this is not the Commonwealth parliament we’re sitting in tonight, I wish it was, because we could make some changes which could be very positive for Australia in this area,” Cr Reece said. 

“Tonight, we get to decide what terms we advocate to the policy decision makers in this area, the Commonwealth Government, and I think the amendments that the Lord Mayor has put forward is more likely to be listened to and more likely to have an effect where policy is decided.” 

Greens Cr Olivia Ball was against amending the motion, questioning why the Lord Mayor had moved to “water down” the wording and remove the call to release the men into the community. 

“The amendment removes the City of Melbourne’s original commitment of a refugee welcome zone and one has to wonder why,” Cr Ball said. 

“It removes from this motion any straightforward condemnation of what is happening, are we not prepared to condemn gross violations of human rights here in our neighbourhood?”

Cr Ball also said the amendment was grossly insufficient as it had no action contained within it. 

“It has verbs—it advocates and it seeks—but it does not ask or direct anyone to actually do anything,” Cr Ball said. 

Cr Leppert also voted against amending the original motion as replacing the “deliberately worded” condemnation of the human rights abuses of the remaining men in the Park Hotel was not sending a strong enough message. 

“We’re not speculating on whether there ‘might’ be human rights abuses here, we have incontrovertible evidence that the Commonwealth Government is committing human rights abuses right smack bang in our municipality,” Cr Leppert said. 

“If you water down the City of Melbourne’s position so that it no longer says anything of significance and importance, and our community and our residents can’t see what our position is, we’ve gone far too far and miss the point of representative democracy.”

Cr Leppert also said that although it puts the Lord Mayor “in a difficult position”, the council needed to lobby the people who have power to make change. 

“These men are being tortured, detained with no charge in some cases for well over seven years who are now residents of the City of Melbourne and they need people to fight for them.” 

“We don’t have the regulatory power to release them but what we do have is the megaphone that comes with capital city status and the ability to advocate loudly and strongly.” 

After a heated debate, the motion to amend the original advocacy policy passed with six votes in favour and five against. 

The amended motion was then carried with eight votes in favour and three, Team Capp Cr Kevin Louey and Liberal Party members Cr Phil Liu and Cr Roshena Campbell, abstaining

Cr Leppert said that he would support the amended motion “through gritted teeth” but that keeping the remaining men in the Park hotel was “torture happening right in the City of Melbourne”. 

“This is a hotel in the heart of our city which has become a prison overnight,” he said. 

“The only opportunity for fresh air is on the roof, but after a suicide attempt by one of the men, because as we know none of them have received proper medical attention, the men don’t particularly want to exercise on a narrow part of the roof which is heavily policed by guards and is the location of attempted suicides by their friends.” 

Overall there were 163 public submissions in favour of the motion with none against. 

Refugee advocate Ria Pillai said the City of Melbourne had an obligation to act in accordance with the principals set out in the Victorian charter of human rights and responsibilities and release the 13 men remaining in the Park Hotel. 

“The City of Melbourne purports to be a refugee welcome zone, as renewed in 2014. This is a public commitment to welcoming refugees and ensuring their human rights are upheld,” Ms Pillai said. 

“The council has an opportunity to uphold its declaration as a refugee welcome zone, by internally and publicly opposing the detainment of refugees in the Park Hotel and expressing its full support of their release and subsequent protection.”

CBD resident and Greens campaigner Apsara Sabaratnam said when the refugees were released, there was no reasoning to who was released and who was left behind. 

“No one knows what criteria was used by this government to make the decision to release some men but not others,” Ms Sabaratnam said. 

“This is the cruelty of indefinite and arbitrary detention and why I’m calling on Lord Mayor Sally Capp and the City of Melbourne councillors to speak up on behalf of the men who are still locked in the Park Hotel.”

Ms Sabaratnam and other campaigners have continued their daily vigil at the Park Hotel and, more recently, have begun doing snap protests outside the Australian Open. 

“At the end of the day, the amount of actions going on are creating a lot of tensions in the police,” Ms Sabaratnam said. “They’re sick of us.”

Epidemiologist Dr Aiden Varan also urged the City of Melbourne to call on Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to release the remaining Park Hotel asylum seekers as a COVID outbreak would be devastating. 

“I’ve had the privilege of speaking with a number of these men who have fled their homes after unimaginable pain and suffering, they’ve spent about a decade in arbitrary detention,” Dr Varan said. 

“The men are fearful because a security guard recently reported to have symptoms of COVID 19 and all men were placed in isolation.”  

In response to the amended motion, activist Lieke Janssen said CoM should “have the guts to say what they should be saying”. 

“If politicians didn’t have the luxury of people being ignorant about the conditions these men live in and their stories, they wouldn’t be able to take such a soft stance,” Ms Janssen said. 

Recently released refugee Thanush Selvarasa said that it was crucial the remaining men were released to put an end to their suffering. 

“I was detained for eight years so I know what they are experiencing in there, there is so much hurt and pain and it’s horrible to be detained indefinitely,” Mr Thanush said. 

“Some people don’t realise until they lose something in their life what it feels like. I know the pain of being separated from family and from freedom.” 

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