Hunger-striking refugee 35-year-old Omid Sorousheh's desperate plea to be recognised as a refugee in Australia has been treated with contempt by immigration minister Chris Bowen, despite clear indications that he was close to death.
Omid has been on a hunger strike for 50 days on November 30. That day it was reported he had been finally airlifted from Nauru and returned to Australia.
But his condition was not known. The department of immigration said the transfer was temporary: “The transferee will be returned to the Nauru Regional Processing Centre as soon as he is deemed medically fit to travel.”
This indicates the immigration department will ignore Omid's key demand to end his hunger strike, which is to have his asylum claim heard in Australia. Refugee advocates say to ignore this while possibly force feeding Omid violates his rights and adds significantly to his torment.
Omid began his hunger strike soon after being transferred to the government’s makeshift detention camp on Nauru. He had been suffering internal bleeding for weeks before his move from the island; other refugees watching him said he was skeletal and almost paralysed.
Caring for the slowly dying man was near impossible with the remote island’s scant facilities. During a stay in the island’s only hospital, he began refusing water on November 22 and tried to cut the veins in his arms two days later.
He was then discharged from the hospital. Refugees said in a letter titled “Last breaths of Omid’s life” that Nauru medical staff decided they could not treat him and he was put under guard in a tent in the detention compound. The refugees wrote, “They left him in tent in the hand of God. Is this the only solution for him?”
In his own message, Omid said: “I don’t stop it until they transfer me back to Australia or let me die here.
“I want justice. I am human. I’ve never wish this situation for any human in the world. I want FREEDOM and NAURU must be close[d].”
He was soon re-admitted to hospital on November 27, but other detainees had not seen him and were not being told of his condition. A Pakistani detainee told Green Left Weekly they were hoping he would be taken to Australia to “have his life saved soon”.
But Bowen initially rejected such a proposal. He has refused to speak publicly about Omid, but the Sydney Morning Herald reported on November 28 he told Labor MPs that “any decision to transfer hunger strikers to the mainland could act as an incentive for others to take similar action”.
A deceptive claim, because 19 other refugees are already taking similar action – the second longest hunger strike has passed 30 days already. Five are now refusing water, several have collapsed and most are determined to follow Omid’s example. In the same letter from Nauru, the refugees said: “Is this the object of killing him to teach the others to stop the hunger strike? No, we commit that the death of Omid will drag more asylum seekers to choose the same way. The bitter reality of Nauru’s detention centre will shock the world.”
In addition to those suffering the effects the hunger strike, many more are now committing self-harm, with at least one more suicide attempt on November 29.
The immigration department told ABC radio’s AM that 10 cases of self-harm were reported in a 24-hour period that day, but “all but one” were “minor”.
Refugees reported men burning themselves with cigarettes, several hanging themselves, cutting and others staying up all night weeping. Australian refugee advocate Ian Rintoul said the camp was “in meltdown”.
Iranian refugee Mahdi told Green Left Weekly by phone on November 27 they were all “day by day losing mental health”, but he explained the reasoning behind their determination to refuse to eat.
“Yesterday, four people collapsed. Some of them are refusing medical treatment — they want answers, not just to prolong their suffering.
“We do not want aid, or treatment, we want answers to the biggest question of our life: they don’t give us any time for the end of this process. When first here, [we were told] processing will start in six months. But after two weeks, [an Australian immigration worker] said processing will be done by Nauru government.
“They lie to us. They said to us, you are the first persons to start processing, you will be first, but now some will have bridging visas and live in Australian cities, and so why are we here?
“We didn’t do anything wrong.”
The new bridging visas, announced by Bowen to cope with the thousands who have arrived since August 13, will allocate some asylum seekers to live outside detention with limited financial support to await their processing.
The visa status is a rehashed version of temporary protection, and refugees will be able to be deported or sent offshore at any time.
Asylum seekers who arrived at the same time, or even on the same boat, as the men now suffering the squalor and isolation of Nauru will live outside detention. This has renewed the Nauru men's desperate bid to be heard and accepted as the refugees they are.
Mahdi — who fled Iran 10 months ago because “my beliefs are different to the government” — has kept an intermittent hunger strike for more than 20 days. When we spoke he hadn’t eaten for 10 straight days.
“I feel very bleak, my kidney last night was in very pain, it as very pain[ful]. The weakness is too much. But I refuse medical, because I want to get answers.”
He put the question he wants answered to the ABC panel show Q&A on November 26.
Host Tony Jones asked Mahdi’s question, which he submitted via Facebook: “What is the difference between me and others who came after me. Now they are getting a bridging visa and going to live in the cities of Australia while I and 399 more must stay here on Nauru in a very bad situation? So, I mean, why are one group being singled out, the people who come afterwards they can come and live in Australia. Why is it happening like this?”
Labor MP Penny Wong answered that when implementing discriminative policies designed to punish refugees that come to seek protection by boat, “regrettably you do end up in the position”.
Asked by Jones whether “it [would] take one of them actually dying of starvation to actually change your position,” Wong said the “ethical choices are so complex”, but evaded answer.
Refugee advocates around Australia have rejected Labor’s compassionless stance on Omid's case and held solidarity rallies for Omid and the others on November 28 in Perth and November 30 in Sydney and Melbourne.
Activists in Perth delivered a coffin and shovel to Labor MP Louise Pratt’s office to ask how many deaths it would take before the government abandoned its barbaric policy. In Sydney, the Refugee Action Coalition called a snap action outside MP Tanya Plibersek's office calling on her to act on her apparent support for refugee rights.