Refugee hunger striker: ‘We want our freedom but we also want justice’

Inside the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation detention centre. Photo: Supplied

Refugees on hunger strike against indefinite detention in the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) are so ill their bodies are shutting down.

The refugees have been on hunger strike for 19 days. This is their second hunger strike in recent months, the first being from June 17 to July 3.

Three refugees are now in Melbourne's Northern Hospital and nine refugees are still striking.

The Medevac refugees are in their ninth year in detention: they spent six years on Nauru or Manus Island and two years in detention in Australia before ending up in MITA.

Arya, one of the hunger strikers, spoke to Green Left.

“We want our freedom and we also want justice. Freedom alone doesn’t work for us, because every moment we will always remember what they are doing to us. This fascist government — [it has] ruined our lives and continues to torture us.”

The hunger strikers are refusing help from the International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), the contractor hired by the federal government.

Arya is refusing medical intervention, but also has a phobia of injections.

“They are trying to prevent us from being sent to hospital [so that they can] keep us in the detention centre. They want to inject us [at MITA] instead of calling an ambulance if, say, you have low blood sugar, because they know the hospital might keep us there — away from this place.”

Many refugees, and even staff, have publicly condemned the IHMS’ treatment of refugees. 

“We’ve had so many examples of them lying about us,” Arya said, “but we can’t prove anything because we are political prisoners.”

Refugees and asylum seekers have been suffering from psychological trauma for years. They say IHMS is not taking their illness seriously, because being locked up in isolation makes their mental health worse.

“If you go to IHMS for help they make you go even more crazy. If you express feelings of frustration, they take you to isolation, keep you there,” Arya said.

Amin Afravi, a Medevac refugee being held in the Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation (BITA), told Green Left: “The government is manipulating people [by] using propaganda around ‘national security’. This border is human made — everywhere should be home.”

Afravi frequently speaks out against the cruel and racist detention system. “We are here because of our dark skin.”

“Indefinite detention is hurting them very badly. These people are in a stage of losing their mind. They have lost nine years of their life.

“IHMS keeps people numb,” he said, referring to accusations that it has been sedating refugees to keep them sleeping most of the time.

Afravi confirmed that IHMS staff had placed refugees, who try to self harm, into isolation. He spoke of a detainee who tried to cut himself “because he had been ignored after requesting medical help”.

Security put him in an isolation cell, which Afravi described as “a room full of mosquitoes [where] you can’t use the toilet without being watched by camera”.

Afravi spoke of a resignation syndrome that they are all suffering. “If I ever get out of here, I want to ride a motorbike and I want to cook my own food.” He also said that detention has “destroyed” him, adding, “I don’t care if they send me back to Papua New Guinea”.

Refugees who were brought to Australia for specialist medical help under the now defunct Medevac law are slowly being released into the community on temporary visas or deported.

Hayder Jasseb, who was imprisoned at BITA, has just received his visa. While this is great news, it creates anxiety in those left behind.

Arya asked what the difference is between them and the 90 Medevac refugees released between last December and February. “We have been given no explanation why we are still in detention when there is no difference in our cases.”

Former Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said it was cheaper for people to be housed in the community than at hotels or in detention. The government spends $3.4 million for each person in offshore detention and $1.3 billion on onshore detention each year.

Many detained asylum seekers want to know why they have not been offered a COVID-19 vaccine.

Canada and Britain have released migrants and asylum seekers from immigration detention to protect them from the virus. But the number in Australia has grown, despite the risk of contagion.

Arya said that four people sharing a room means they cannot safely socially distance. Their rooms are also frequently searched by guards, some of whom could be unwittingly be spreading the virus.

The refugees on hunger strike, like Arya, have families they have not seen for more than eight years. Many have not told their families about their situation.

“My family think I’m living in the community. They would not believe that I, and others like me, would be imprisoned, having committed no crime.”

Meanwhile, Medevac refugees in the Park Hotel in Melbourne and in BITA are protesting for their release every day.

Refugee activists are also continuing to organise protests, calling an end to the indefinite detention regime which Australia has made legal.

[Sign a Refugee Action Collective petition demanding the refugees are freed.]