Refugees bound for Nauru and Manus Island mount desperate resistance

Sydney rally against offshore processing of refugees, August 15. Photo: Peter Boyle

Newly arrived asylum seekers are staging a desperate resistance to Australia's plans to ship them to remote Pacific island detention camps, as the government's efforts to begin the moves were slammed as “chaotic”.

Children, women and men joined a hunger strike that began in Christmas Island detention on August 25 after they were told their asylum claim would not be processed in Australia. A small group of men continued for three days before beginning to eat again.

The immigration department tried to play down the protests, but refugees' fear and shock over news of offshore processing has gained attention.

An email sent by a group of Tamil refugees that arrived on Christmas Island on August 16, three days after the Houston report recommended a return to “Pacific solution” style detention, pleaded for help in their “critical situation”.

The short message sent to Green Left Weekly on August 30 said they left Sri Lanka on July 27 and were at sea when Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that all asylum seekers arriving in Australia after August 13 would be sent to detention camps on Nauru and Manus Island to wait indefinitely for resettlement. The Tamils said they came with a “fervent hope” for protection, but Australia had washed its hands of them.

“We are shocked and don't know what to do.”

Another message, sent to Refugee Action Coalition spokesperson Ian Rintoul, said more than 60 asylum seekers had begun refusing food in detention on Christmas Island amid confusion over their fate. Families, singles and unaccompanied children were among them.

Despite foreign affairs minister Bob Carr's claim that there was “less chance” of self-harm protests because the process was “transparent”, Rintoul said the situation was “chaotic”.

“I think we are seeing the same kind of thing that we saw under [former PM John] Howard,” he told Radio New Zealand. “Just administrative confusion and disorganisation, which led to the most horrendous mistakes being made in terms of processing.”

The Melbourne-based Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) said on August 28 that immigration staff falsely told refugees the UN High Commissioner for Refugees would process their claims. But the UNHCR has said it will not cooperate with any offshore processing plans.

ASRC said those intended for offshore processing were in “locked down” compounds. Other preparations for the forced removals were also evident. “Pallets of batons and shields were brought into North West Point Detention Centre,” ASRC said, and the International Organisation on Migration was distributing voluntary return forms to detainees.

In Darwin, five groups that arrived on boats have also been told they would be sent to Nauru or Manus Island. They have been kept separate from other detainees and outside visitors have been restricted. Refugee advocates in Darwin say the groups included lone children and many Rohingyan men who are fleeing genocide in Burma.

Another boat that arrived in Australian waters on August 11, before the Gillard-imposed cut-off, has been subject to potential removal because they spent several says at sea under Navy guard and did not arrive on land until August 15.

They have made a desperate plea for reassessment. Darwin Asylum Seekers Support and Advocacy Network spokesperson Peter Robson said the immigration minister “needs to urgently reassess the status of the men, women and children from the boat ... and reconsider when they arrived in Australia and whether they should be sent offshore to cruel indefinite detention.

“The fact that unaccompanied minors and people from one of the most persecuted races on Earth may be sent to remote locations for unknown periods of time should be a source of shame for the Minister for Immigration and the Australian government. This regime of offshore processing is going to be more draconian than anything under the Howard government.”