There is one message refugees in the Manus Island detention centre want Australia to hear: we need help.
In a letter written on January 20, a group of asylum seekers taking part in a mass hunger strike wrote: “In here alarms are ringing but heartless politicians are still indifferent.”
They said they were writing “from the heart of Manus” as the hunger strike entered its “ninth day and it will continue”.
“We will continue our push until we reach our ultimate goal, which is freedom.”
Another letter, also written by men taking part in the hunger strike, said the hunger strike had also been accompanied by “at least 20” suicide attempts — via means such as swallowing washing powder, swallowing razor blades or hanging. “There is a disaster happening here,” they said.
“With all this, still there is no clear message from the Australian Immigration.”
The hunger strike is a form of non-violent resistance the refugees have been forced to undertake due to their total lack of power or control. For some of the men, who have been held in the camp for up to 18 months, it is the only means by which they can voice their despair.
Reports have varied over how many of the camp’s 1035 detainees were taking part, but advocates generally believe between 700 and 900 detained men were refusing food and some were also refusing water. At least 14 had reportedly sewn their lips together.
As a result of their organised efforts, the illegal and negligent detention of asylum seekers by the Australian government has been reported by CNN International and Democracy Now!
Vigils have been held in cities around the world, including in New York, Boston, Berlin and Cambridge.
Images of men collapsing, the state of shower blocks where water was cut off for more than 24 hours over January 21-22 and banners painted by the asylum seekers have been seen around the world.
Security guards and local authorities responded to the men’s actions with force. Refugee advocates in Australia said Wilson’s Security guards intervened on January 19 by surrounding one of the four compounds in the camp and breaking a makeshift blockade set up by hunger strikers. The Refugee Action Coalition said up to 170 men were taken from the Delta compound — some “dragged” away in handcuffs — and a further 17 were taken from the adjacent Oscar compound. Up to 60 were held without charge in the nearby Lorengau jail.
The show of force — including some allegations of guards beating refugees — is likely to terrify the men, most of whom were in the camp when violent clashes led to the death of Reza Berati last year.
Refugees responded peacefully by filming the guards’ attacks and sharing the footage with allies in Australia. Commentary over one of the videos says: “Who is responsible for these people? They only want freedom. Now they are being bashed by Wilson’s and nobody can help them. Whoever is watching this video, please help us.”
The Australian government responded to the critically desperate actions of the men with lies and intransigence. For Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the ongoing protests were nothing but a “major challenge to the policy of the government”.
New immigration minister Peter Dutton accused the refugees of using weapons, a claim contradicted by PNG authorities. In response to the hunger strike, just days after it began, Dutton said the hunger strikers would “never arrive in Australia”.
Canberra also continued its plan to transfer men from the camp to a facility in Lorengau for eventual “resettlement” in PNG. Two men weretaken on January 21. This was followed by more serious acts of self-harm and a video delivered by refugees of two men trying to hang themselves.
The hunger strike and acts of self-harm are the result of conditions in the centre. After more than a year of indefinite detention in horrifically negligent conditions, the prospect of being released into PNG society has stoked tensions to intolerable levels. Constant abuse and death threats from locals mean they fear for their lives outside the centre.
On Australian soil, another asylum seeker’s life hangs in the balance while the government refuses to act. An Iranian asylum seeker, known as “Martin”, was living in the community but was denied refugee protection and put back into detention.
In response he fasted for “53 days until December 21 last year,” RAC said. After an application to appeal his case was again denied, he resumed the hunger strike on December 27.
At the time of writing, Martin was refusing further treatment and refugee advocates feared permanent organ damage or that he would soon die.
Fifteen others in the same situation as Martin had been on hunger strike for one week as at January 24.
Refugee advocates in Australia are calling on people to take action on behalf of Martin and the thousands now held in offshore detention on Manus Island and Nauru.
Samar Elzieny, whose brother is in detention on Manus, told a Sydney rally on January 21: “I don't care if the government throws me in goal for trying to defend my brother. He has already lost his mother and he will die if I don't help him.
"He has been pushed to his limit and that's why he's protesting."
It is an undeniably critical situation in the Manus detention centre. The understaffed and poorly equipped medical facilities cannot cope with hundreds of broken men starving themselves.
Their main plea continues to be: help us, we want to be free.