Hunger strike at migrant jail

July 10, 1991

By Archie Moore

MELBOURNE — Eleven political refugees imprisoned for up to 18 months at Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre have been on hunger strike since June 24. The group, eight Somalis, two Bulgarian Macedonians and an Iranian, are fasting in support of their demand for relocation from the jail while their cases are considered by the immigration department.

The refugees decided to fast after the Department of Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs ignored an April 1 letter requesting that they be housed in hostels like other migrants with similar legal status. The Islamic Council of Victoria has written to the department asking that the detainees be placed in the care of the local Muslim community.

"If they are sent back, they will be killed. We can't just lock them up for ever", said Islamic Council secretary Bilal Cleland.

"The rooms in which we live are about three metres square, for four people", one of the refugees told Green Left Weekly. "There's no educational facilities. There's no good sports facilities. We have a field outside but we are not allowed to go outside and play on it! So we just have table tennis and billiards. That's all we've got here. We can't continue living here because of our health."

Detainees are subject to constant surveillance from "a control room with so many [closed circuit television] cameras that they can watch any of our movements".

Hanging over the refugees is the threat of deportation to countries where they could face imprisonment, torture or death. "They don't tell us about the progress of our cases. We just sit here and don't know what's happening. That's why we are afraid. They just keep us here as long as they want. One day they're going to deport us just like Sayid [or] just like the Iranian guy who was deported from here sometime back." Tamil refugee Sayid Mohiden Meera was deported to Sri Lanka on June 30.

Detention centre authorities have said the refugees will be taken to Pentridge jail if they continue their fast until they need medical treatment. In response to immigration department requests for proof of torture, the detainees retort that they weren't issued with certificates.

On July 3, about 80 people attended a vigil outside the centre, organised by the Anti-Deportation Action Campaign. Speakers at the protest included representatives of the Somali, Iranian, Sri Lankan

Tamil, Turkish, Kenyan, South African and Fijian communities. From a perimeter fence, the protesters were able to communicate with some detainees who were shouting through their cell windows.

A woman among the detainees claimed the centre's management refused to supply fresh fruit for the children, of whom there are about five among the detainees. There are no educational facilities for the children. Management refuses even to supply crayons, saying the children might write on the walls.

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