This month is the start of the wet season on the tiny island of Nauru, where more than 370 refugees are being detained in Australian army tents that leak and do nothing to keep mosquitoes out.
In these appalling conditions, more than 300 men are refusing food and some are refusing water in a bid to have the department of immigration hear their claims for asylum.
That’s right — people that came to Australia exercising their legal and moral right to seek protection are on a hunger strike because the Australian government has decided to make an example of them.
The hunger strike began on November 1 after a string of suicide attempts and an alleged assault on a refugee by a guard. Since then, dozens have collapsed from exhaustion and the effects of malnutrition.
They risk permanent organ damage, muscle breakdown, gallstones and heart failure. Medics on the island told one Iranian man, who has been on hunger strike for almost a month, that he could lose his kidneys at any time.
Vitamin deficiencies also make them more vulnerable to illness and disease. Many of the refugees reported contracting unfamiliar diseases and skin rashes in the first few weeks.
In the equatorial heat and squalid conditions, the men have decided to risk all they have left — their lives — to receive the recognition to which they are entitled under Australian and international laws.
With the stakes so high, it’s no surprise the Australian government is trying to quell public outcry in Australia. But it hasn’t moved to address the refugees’ complaints or their rapidly worsening mental and physical health.
Instead, the immigration department’s media manager, Sandi Logan, has squabbled with refugee advocates over the exact number of refugees on hunger strike, claiming that fewer than 70 are refusing food.
But in Australia's grim determination to implement its system of indefinite detention offshore, Australian Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs said on November 7 that the country was committing “an egregious breach of international human rights law”.
Immigration minister Chris Bowen has told the refugees that their claims for asylum will not begin to be processed for up to a year. Another immigration official has confirmed to them that they could be made to stay on the island for up to five years due to the government’s “no advantage” policy.
It’s a ruthless and calculated strategy, designed to dash their hopes of resettlement and use the cruel example as a warning to other refugees trying to find safety in Australia.
The policy says the Australian government is willing to force them into conditions that, in the refugees’ words, are some of the worst they have seen in their lives.
The torturous conditions and prolonged uncertainty are such that refugees are resorting to return to the very places they have fled.
Several groups of refugees from Sri Lanka have been sent back to face a regime notorious for its widespread human rights abuses. Some were removed from Nauru. Others were held in Australia, but faced being sent to Nauru soon. The Australian government calls these cases “voluntary returns”.
The first group of Iraqi and Iranian refugees to resort to returning left Nauru on November 1. The department of immigration said 13 asylum seekers had made this “choice”.
So-called voluntary returns took place under the John Howard government’s Pacific Solution too. About 30% of those held on Nauru under Howard were returned to their country of origin. The Edmund Rice Centre later tracked down dozens of those returned, and found many had been tortured, kidnapped or killed. These included children.
This is blood on Australia’s hands.
Attacks on refugees arriving by boat are intensifying. The recent move by Bowen to introduce laws to excise the Australian coastline from the migration zone is a plan to strip away the rights of refugees. It removes human rights protections in the Migration Act that had stopped the government from discriminating against refugees based on their method of arrival.
If made law, Australia could deport any refugee that arrives on the mainland by boat to an offshore processing detention centre without hearing their need for protection.
But attempts to hide and deny the reality of the situation on Nauru are failing due to the refugees’ resolve to get the information out. They share a Facebook page and consistently debunk the government’s rhetoric and spin.
It will take a huge grassroots effort of every progressive voice in this country to make sure that they are heard over the powerful and manipulative government and the racist media.