Australia: Asylum seekers start hunger strike

Posted by admin on Jan 29th, 2010

ANDREA HAYWARD, January 29, 2010 – 2:19PM

A group of asylum seekers staging a peaceful protest claim to have started a hunger strike at the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre (CIIDC), the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) says. About 130 Tamils from Sri Lanka started protesting about processing times at the CIIDC on Thursday afternoon. The protest is peaceful and the mood throughout the centre is calm, a DIAC spokesman said on Friday. “Staff are monitoring the situation and encouraging those involved to end the protest action,” the spokesman told AAP. The protesters have signaled that they have started a hunger strike. “They have been monitored by staff and have been seen to be observing fluids,” the DIAC spokesman said. The group of Tamils made a sign comparing their six month detention with the six-week processing for those onboard the Oceanic Viking, who struck a deal with the federal government after refusing to disembark from the vessel in Indonesian waters.

The average processing time at the detention centre is 107 days but the Tamils have complained their cases are taking seven months or longer.

DIAC said one Sri Lankan man has been detained for more than a year but he was using his right of appeal after his refugee claim was rejected.

Refugee advocates said the protest was also related to a mobile phone ban and the detention of asylum seekers charged over a riot last year in isolation.

But DIAC said there were no isolation cells at the centre and the group of 11 Sri Lankans and Afghans had been moved into a higher security compound on January 21 following consultation with the Australian Federal Police, who investigated the matter.

The spokesman said the compound, known as the red compound, was used for detainees known for disruptive behaviour, or who posed a risk to themselves of the good order of the facility.

Opposition Immigration spokesman Scott Morrison, who is on the island and will on Friday visit the CIIDC said he was not surprised at news of the protest.

He said this was bound to happen when the government cut deals with asylum seekers from the Oceanic Viking.

“The government is reaping what it’s sowing,” Mr Morrison told AAP.

“Clearly if you’re going to give different people different treatment it will become an issue. The government is making a difficult situation here worse.”

But Mr Morrison, who visited some of the detention facilities on the island on Thursday, said he thought it was “outrageous” people would protest.

After touring a detention centre in the townsite where families and children are detained, Mr Morrison said asylum seekers were enjoying much better conditions than many indigenous Australians.

Family First Senator Steve Fielding who is also visiting the island’s detention facilities said the CIIDC was akin to a motel with detainees receiving better treatment than many Australians.

Senator Fielding said Australia was seen as a soft touch by those wanting to jump the immigration queue.

“Facilities on Christmas Island are pretty good and look more like a motel than a detention centre,” he said.

“Detainees on the island get good accommodation, great food, phone and internet access and then within three months get a gold pass to live in Australia.”

Immigration Minister Chris Evans says asylum seekers have been held in detention on Christmas Island for six months because authorities have struggled to get timely information about a post-civil war Sri Lanka.

Senator Evans is adamant the detainees won’t be given refugee status until their security status can be determined.

“There’s a few around the six-month mark there, that’s true, but they won’t be processed until the security clearances come through,” he told ABC Radio on Friday.

The average refugee application had taken 107 days, a waiting period higher than the government’s 90-day onshore target, Senator Evans said.

“One of the issues, obviously, is following the civil war in Sri Lanka … security agencies are one, being careful and two, having more difficulty in terms of getting timely information,” he said.

Those found not be genuine refugees would be returned to their country of origin, he added.

Senator Evans said the protest was “peaceful”.

Refugee advocate Jack Smit from Project SafeCom says some Christmas Island inmates are approaching a one-year detention term, while the centre is dangerously overcrowded.

He said a ban on mobile phones linked to negative media reports based on phone contacts with detainees about a meeting between Sri Lankan asylum seekers and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) had angered refugees.

“Clearly, the immigration department does not like it when their failures are reported by their clients,” he said.

Australian of the Year Professor Patrick McGorry labelled the detention centres as “factories” for mental illnesses.

Mr Smit warned the mobile phone ban was contributing to mental health issues.

But during a visit to the CIIDC on Tuesday, when AAP met with an asylum seeker, they produced a mobile phone from which they received calls.

A Department of Immigration spokesman said detainees were allowed access to monitored phone calls on arrival to the detention centre and had access to telephones in the centre for use with phone cards.

Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul said asylum seekers at the detention centre had had enough.

“I think people have realised that protests do have an effect,” Mr Rintoul told AAP.

Mr Rintoul said there were “plenty” of asylum seekers who had been detained for eight or nine or ten months and in some cases nearly 11 months.

The capacity of the CIIDC and other detention facilities on the island has been boosted from 1200 beds to 1848 and is expected to reach 2200.

A DIAC spokesman said on Thursday there was 1564 asylum seekers on the island and more than 70 en route after two boats were intercepted in the last week.

Comments are closed.