Tamil refugee hunger strike: 'Why do they treat us like this?'


"We are human beings, why are we ignored?", a Tamil refugee inside the Christmas Island detention centre told Green Left Weekly on the night of January 28.

He told GLW more than 200 Tamil detainees had begun a hunger strike over delays in processed Tamil refugees and granting them visas. The next day, 133 hunger strikers were on an oval in side the camp protesting.

The hunger strike lasted until the evening.

Protests by Tamils had occurred during the day of January 28 at the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre. With placards reading "How long do we have to wait?" and "Protection not detention", the protest coincided with a visit to the island by Family First Senator Steve Fielding and Coalition immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison.

The detainee told GLW that Tamil refugees detained at Christmas Island were frustrated and angry at the immigration authorities over the fact that many Tamil refugees had not been processed, despite some being detained for up to 11 months.

Long-term and indefinite detention is inhumane. On the mainland, the new policy of the immigration department is to process detainees within 90 days, but Christmas Island has been excised from Australian territory so that immigration laws do not apply.

The detainee, who was one of 194 refugees on a boat intercepted on June 28, told GLW by phone on January 31 that he had been waiting in detention "for seven months and three days". He said Tamils were frustrated that other detainees were processed much quicker, while they were left to wait indefinitely.

He said every Thursday, it is announced which detainees have been granted visas. When only eight Tamils were granted visas on January 28, he said frustration boiled over.

The detainee told GLW it was extremely hard to wait inside the camp for months on end. "I don't sleep at night, plenty of people are being affected.

"After we went through hardship, and then we come here, and I don't know why the government treats like this. Why doesn't it show the compassion we expect?"

The detainee asked why, if Australia accepts 13,000 refugees a year, were Tamils being excluded from assistance? He wanted to know whether the Australian government was planning a deal with the Sri Lankan government to send Tamil refugees who had fled the regime back to Sri Lanka.

In a statement read on behalf of the hunger strikers to GLW over the phone on January 29, the detainee said: "We would like to say we love and respect your country and obey your rules and regulations.

"We have been refugees in our own country and have lost everything we have
except our lives."

He pointed out that the "Australian government has no proper programs of settling refugees from Sri Lanka and we only have access to skilled migration and family reunion
programs. If there was a special humanitarian program, then we wouldn't come to
Australia by boat.

"And we believe that punishing refugees for seeking asylum violates the UN
refugee convention.

"We are so hopeless and not able to bear the pain and the hardship any more ... The more that you delay, the more become mental patients.

"Our people have been killed physically by Sri Lankan authorities and now killed mentally by Australian authorities."

He said the detainees, who raised a banner reading "We are human beings", were requesting a response to their situation from the immigration department.

Before the hunger strike was called off, two detainees had fainted and required urgent medical attention. The detainee said camp authorities had been taking the numbers of those taking part in the protest, causing fear among some of reprisals.

The hunger strike follows days of protests in early January over delays in processing. The detainee said that at the time, the authorities had sought to calm Tamil refugees down and prevent an escalation in their protests by promising action. As a result of the protests, 16 Tamils secured visas.

However, the detainee said there was no change, with many Tamils still waiting with no indication of when they will be processed.

The detainee said that immigration told the Tamils they must wait for a "security clearance". Immigration minister Chris Evans repeated this line to the media in response to the hunger strike.

Tamil refugees are fleeing the brutal Sri Lankan regime, which last year massacred thousands of Tamil civilians in its war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which had been fighting for an independent Tamil state.

The Australian government has close ties with Sri Lanka's regime, which has claimed those fleeing include "LTTE terrorists".

There is not evidence of this, but even if there was it is not clear why partisans of one side of a civil war in Sri Lanka pose a threat to Australia.

The detainee told GLW on January 31 that said the main purpose of the protests had been to raise awareness of their situation. With the media coverage protests, and the government forced to respond, he said he felt it had achieved its aim.

"More people are now aware, even the government, even the minister has responded. The message has been carried to him."

Contact immigration minister Chris Evans to support the appeal of the Tamil refugees to be treated fairly and granted visas: Phone: 02 6277 7860; Fax: 02 6273 4144;
Email: minister@immi.gov.au.