Australia refugees’ hunger strike for freedom

Protests forcefully broken up at costly detention centre infamous for harsh treatment of asylum seekers.

Australia has a history of protests because of harsh treatment of asylum seekers by officials [AP]
Australia has a history of protests because of harsh treatment of asylum seekers by officials [AP]

Adelaide, Australia – Security officials at an Australian immigration facility have forcefully ended a stand off between asylum seekers and guards on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, but protesters have vowed to continue a week-long hunger strike against their detention.

As many as 700 asylum seekers at the controversial detention centre are reportedly involved in the protest with 200 having sought medical attention. About 20 men had sewn their mouths shut and two others had swallowed razor blades since the demonstration began last week.

“They have been calling for resettlement, they want discussions about how they can be safely resettled,” said Ian Rintoul, spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition, who is in contact with asylum seekers at the Manus Island facility.

“There is no safe resettlement in PNG [Papua New Guinea], and that’s something the government needs to address.”

Asylum seekers held in detention [Refugee Action Coalition]

Some of the participants have been living in the facility since August 2013.

Stand off

Guards reportedly burst into Delta and Oscar compounds at about 4:30pm local time on Monday, seizing up to 30 men whom they believed to be the “ringleaders” of the protest.

Delta and Oscar compounds have been at the heart of the demonstration since early last week.

Asylum seekers barricaded themselves in Delta compound since last Friday, in fear that local police and security staff may be preparing to attack in a replay of violence that occurred in February 2014, which led to the death of 23-year-old Iranian refugee, Reza Berati.

The protesters were also denied access to drinking water, with bottled water having been left outside a security fence beyond the reach of the protesters, only to be taken away again later, they told the Refugee Action Coalition.

There were also earlier reports that some of the “ringleaders” had been placed in the infamous “Chauka” solitary confinement unit, which is used to remove detainees considered “troublemakers” or disorderly from the general population.

The unit consists of three shipping containers arranged in a triangle, each bare except for a mattress. There are no windows, and during the day the containers are left to roast in PNG’s hot and humid climate.

Australia’s Federal Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton had called on protesters to end their “aggressive actions”. His office did not respond to Al Jazeera’s questions.


Manus Island was reopened in November 2012 as a temporary facility designed to house refugees and asylum seekers who tried to reach Australia by boat from Indonesia. 

Under its system of offshore detention, Australia redirects all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to offshore camps in Papua New Guinea and the small Pacific island-nation of Nauru. There they are detained and processed, often for extended lengths of time. 

The Manus centre was part of a pivot in Australian immigration policy that began under the previous Labor government, and aimed to deter asylum seekers from attempting to make the often-deadly boat journey.

When the conservative coalition government came to power in late 2013, the programme was expanded and Manus Island has since earned a reputation as Australia’s Guantanamo Bay.

'We have no information for you, all you can be sure of is that you will never set foot in Australia.'

- Greg Lake, former detention centre official

Last year, the government sought to ratchet up the policy further when it announced no asylum seekers who arrived by boat would be resettled in Australia.

Greg Lake, former director of offshore processing for Nauru and Manus Island, was one of those responsible for setting up the centres under the direction of the past two Australian governments.

Lake, who later left his job running the detention centre on Nauru, told Al Jazeera the very design of detention facilities on Nauru and Manus was intended to breed hopelessness.

“Every decision turned on questions of deterrence,” said Lake.

“On Christmas Island in 2010, we had 80 case managers whose job was to meet one-on-one with asylum seekers and explain their legal obligations. That was 2010. But in 2012, when we established offshore processing, there were no case managers. We don’t speak to detainees about their options.”

“All we say is that ‘We have no information for you, all you can be sure of is that you will never set foot in Australia.'”

When asked how the current detention regime compares to a prison environment, Lake said there were similarities, but also key differences.

“The similarity is that you have no control over any aspect of your life. The difference is that you don’t know for how long you will be there,” said Lake.

“In prison, you put a timeline to a person and you can manage a person’s sense of future. You can say, ‘Okay, you are going to spend this amount of time here, then the parole board and support organisations take over.’ In an immigration detention environment, you don’t have those tools available and that means you lose your ability to manage a person’s sense of future,” he said.

Costly to reputation

Though it has brought a boom to the local economy on Manus Island, the Australian government is projected to spend $2.9bn this year to maintain its system of offshore processing.

By contrast, the UNHCR is expected to spend $3.5bn to house 11 million refugees worldwide in the same period.

According to Joyce Chia, a senior research associate with the Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, the cost has also been to Australia’s international reputation.

“Among countries we would normally compare ourselves with – Canada, the US, the UK – Australia is out on its own,” Chia said.

At the end of last year, the Australian government succeeded in passing a raft of new laws relating to refugees that effectively rewrites the framework for dealing with refugees and asylum seekers in the country.

Effectively, these decisions have expanded the power of the federal immigration minister, while reducing judicial oversight and “fast tracking” refugee processing in a way that prevents detainees from being able to appeal against decisions.

One highly controversial move has been the removal of the definition of “refugee”, as defined by the UN Refugee Convention.

“The effect of taking the definition out is to try and stop the court from resorting to international case law and international principles,” said Chia. “It’s an attempt to isolate Australia from what is happening elsewhere, which is very concerning because we are still bound by the obligations and we cannot opt out.”

Another problematic change Chia cites as potentially dangerous are new laws about “bogus documentation”.

This change means a person must be refused protection if the Minister considers they have provided “bogus” documents. In practice, documents are often considered “bogus” because they were issued from a country known for producing fake documents.

In effect, this reasoning may mean legitimate claims for asylum are wrongly denied, said Chia. 

Outsourcing Australia’s immigration problem

Outsourcing the problem

Australia also caught international attention when it signed a deal with Cambodia that would see Australia’s refugees resettled in the Southeast Asian nation in exchange for $38m in aid.

Cambodia is a developing nation of 14 million people with a slow growing economy that is heavily dependent on China.

It is also still coming to terms with the genocide that occurred under the Khmer Rouge and has a poor track record on human rights.

In light of this, the deal has drawn the ire of critics and the international community who see it as an attempt to “outsource” Australia’s legal obligations.

But as it stands, the deal currently has had no effect on asylum seekers currently in Australia’s detention programme, many of whom have been waiting years without any news.

For them, there is no difference between tomorrow and today.

Source: Al Jazeera

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