I was mid-way through Saturday brunch when I got a call from the man on hunger strike.
He told me his name was Mohamed Sayed. He was calling from Nauru, an island country in Micronesia. He said he was one of 377 asylum seekers transferred there from Australia’s Christmas Island as part a policy of ‘offshore detention’ for those who come by boat to Australia’s shores.
He was starving himself, he said, in protest at the Australian government’s treatment of him and others who consider themselves refugees.
Mohamed told me that around 300 of the detainees on Nauru are on hunger strike: he claimed that though ‘most’ were drinking none had eaten anything for – on Saturday – nine days. He said most had lost between ten and twelve kilograms in weight. Seventy people, he said, had collapsed at different points five, he said, that day. There’d been suicide attempts, he said. Malnutrition had given others ‘flu’, ‘headaches’ and ‘problems with kidney stones’.
People from the Red Cross and Salvation Army had, he said, been into the camp. But they couldn’t offer much. As for the ‘authorities’: they’d been told by them that the processing programme – their refugee applications – wouldn’t start for months. Meanwhile, detainees were living five or, in the bigger structures, fourteen to a tent.
Mohamed’s story of how he ended up on Nauru starts a little differently to most. He told me he was Pakistani – most who illegally take boats to Australia and have ended up transferred to a not-particularly-near Pacific neighbour are Iranian, Iraqi or Afghan. But Mohamed said he had to leave Parachinar near the Afghan border for the same reason that others flee Afghanistan – to escape the Taliban. Even Pakistani cities, he said, weren’t safe for him.
He’d helped NATO forces and Taliban militants had carried out ‘targeted killings’ in Islamabad on people in similar situations to him. So he’d flown, via Bangkok, to Jakarta, then travelled by road south to Bogor.
That’s a town I visited in July, probably when Mohmamed was living there – not that we ever met. Bogor is a common stopping-over point for asylum seekers gathering the money and connections needed to get on a boat. After seven months in Bogor, Mohamed told me, he paid $7,300 for passage to Christmas Island.
Australian authorities intercepted Mohamed’s boat – as they have hundreds of others – and transferred those on board to a detention centre on Christmas Island. Mohamed says he spent 25 days there before a group of detainees was taken to a big hall where they were told they were being transferred to Nauru. Ten minutes later, he said, they were bussed to airport. Those who refused were made to go by force.
Is Mohamed’s story, and his description of what’s happening on Nauru, true? It’s hard to be sure. A week ago, I gave my mobile number to a Sydney based campaigner for refugee rights who claimed to be able to get messages to detainees on Nauru. A few days later, with ‘blocked’ in the number display, my phone rang, and ‘Mohamed’ told me his story.
In September, escorted by representatives from Australia’s government, I visited the Nauru camp – before it had any detainees. Mohamed’s description of the camp and the island certainly tallied with the camp I’d seen.
I think he was genuinely calling from Nauru.
But I can’t be sure because, to protect the rights and anonymity of ‘clients’, Australia’s government won’t give the names of any of the asylum seekers on Nauru. Their immigration department will neither confirm nor deny there is a Mohamed Sayed there.
The immigration department accepts there is a ‘peaceful protest’ going on on Nauru, though they dispute the number on hunger strike is anywhere near as high as 300. They say they’re unable to say many people have needed medical treatment – but confirm ‘some’ have. It’s all very vague.
Despite a number of requests neither they – as controllers of the camp – nor the Nauruan government will let me or any other journalists travel to it to see conditions, or corroborate stories for ourselves.
Last Thursday, I went to a protest in the centre of Sydney, organised by campaigners trying to draw attention to the plight of the Nauruan asylum seekers. It was tiny. Fewer than eighty people there, mostly deeply-involved campaigners. Australians, on the whole, seems uninterested in the huger strike on Nauru – quite possibly because the Australian government is being so effective at keeping it out of sight.
The rights and wrongs of ‘offshore processing’ can be debated endlessly. I am no wooly campaigner. I can see the logical conclusion to some campaigners’ arguments – that all refugees who make the journey by boat to Australia should be given residency here – that would encourage tens of thousands to try. There’d end up being a formal ferry service from Indonesia, especially for illegal immigrants. That is a ridiculous proposition.
But I do think the Australian people should be allowed to see what is happening in their name, and know – with certainty – the consequences of it. They shouldn’t have to to rely on me repeating information from a phone call I received over Saturday brunch a call I think – but cannot swear – was from someone who hadn’t had brunch, or any other meal, for over a week.