Twelve white shrouded forms lay in the Armidale Mall on Thursday morning, surrounded by scores of people keeping a silent vigil.
Members of the Armidale Rural Australians for Refugees (ARAR) group joined people across the country in a Day of Mourning.
Five years ago, the Rudd government announced that asylum seekers arriving by boat would never be settled in Australia, but would be transferred indefinitely to detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island, funded by Australia.
"These people who are up there are just ordinary people,” ARAR member Barbara Finch said.
“They’re basically being held as political hostages. Can you imagine being somewhere against your will for five years, with little hope?
“It's true some have been offered passage back to where they came from – and the fact that they don't take it says a lot about what they're running away from.”
World opinion has denounced the detention centres as violations of human rights; and the United Nations has declared vast numbers to be genuine refugees.
After the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court judged the detention centre unlawful, Manus Island was closed in October..
About 1700 people, however, are still in the detention centres. Many have mental health problems, caused by their imprisonment, and live in fear and suffering.
Nine families have been split; husbands separated for up to five years from wives and children granted residency here.
And a dozen detainees have died as a result of medical neglect, taking their own life, or fatal assaults by guards.
“We decided to mark their deaths by making shrouded effigies, with photos of who they are,” Ms Finch said.
“They’re all young men; and they all probably had a lot to offer. We think it’s tragic, and we just want to mourn the fact.”
The detention centres, Ms Finch believes, also bring into question Australia's status as a liberal nation with human rights.
"We're breaking so many human rights things that we've signed up to," Ms Finch said.
Human rights apart, the government spends more than $500,000 a year to detain a single person offshore - $2 billion a year in total.
Two years ago, the government paid out $70 million to current and former detainees on Manus Island.
"Rather than take it to court, where all the information would come out and be available to the public,” Ms Finch said, “the government paid out $70 million in compensation to people for illegal imprisonment. That says something."
Australia, Ms Finch said, is also dumping its problems on poorer, developing nations struggling with their own issues. The whole country of Nauru, for instance, has a smaller population than Armidale.
“Australia isn't even publishing the numbers on Manus Island,” Ms Finch said, “because they say, ‘Oh, we don't have a centre there, it's the New Guinea government dealing with that, so they're doing all the processing’.
“It's simply not true, because Australia is funding all that, and is morally responsible. And a lot of people are very concerned.”
What can you do?
The Armidale Rural Australians for Refugees group is writing and lobbying to politicians.
“Politicians aren't bad people at all,” Ms Finch said, “but they've somehow got themselves into a corner, and don't know how to get out of it. If popular opinion says: Get out of it!, maybe it'll happen."
Ms Finch encouraged ordinary people to write to their local member, and members of the government and opposition
"We encourage ordinary people to be as outraged as we are,” Ms Finch said, “in order that then the politicians will say, 'O God, my electorate is really keen on this issue; I'd better have another think!'
"They can write Individual personal letters saying, ‘This isn't the Australia they want to live in; we do care about human rights and justice.’”
People can also join ARAR, which organises letter-writing sessions and other activities. The group meets on the third Wednesday of every month at 5.15pm in the Garden Room at Kent House, 141 Faulkner St.
They can also find out more information on the Department of Home Affairs’ website (formerly the Department of Immigration), or borrow books about refugees’ plight from the library.
From the Armidale Mall, the protest moved to the University of New England.
Photos of the events will be sent to the detainees.
"I think the important thing for the refugees is that they will know that people in Armidale care about them,” ARAR member Gaynor McGrath said.
“The worst thing for them would be if nobody was thinking of them, and caring about them. It gives them a little bit of hope."
Socialist Alternative New England will also organised a rally this afternoon to complement ARAR's events. The rally takes place at 5pm, on the corner of Marsh and Dumaresq Streets.