BY SARAH STEPHEN
A hunger strike by around 150 mostly Iraqi asylum seekers held in Woomera detention centre began on March 7. Fifteen shallow graves were dug, and detainees buried themselves up to their necks, indicating that they would rather be dead than remain in Woomera any longer.
The protest is aimed at highlighting the amount of time many of the asylum seekers have been held in detention. Despite the Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) releasing 300 from detention since the January hunger strike, 535 still remain. All have been in detention for more than six months, 84 of them for more than 12 months.
According to Cyrus Sarang from Sydney's Refugee Action Collective, two people tried to hang themselves on March 7, and another man threw himself onto razor wire. His wife slashed her wrists after the Refugee Review Tribunal rejected their asylum claim.
Rahim, an Iraqi detainee, told ABC news on March 9 that all 140 detainees participating in the protest had gathered around the makeshift graves where 15 men had buried themselves with only their faces showing. He said that when the authorities removed buried men to give them medical attention, others simply took their places in the ground.
Rahim said the protesters wanted to dig more symbolic graves to die in, but the authorities confiscated their tools. Eight asylum seekers were taken to hospital from heat exhaustion after lying in the graves.
Jeremy Moore, the spokesperson for lawyers representing the asylum seekers, told the March 8 Age: "They are just sick and tired of waiting to be processed. They believe they are entitled to be released. They are genuine refugees and they have just run out of patience with the government."
In a doorstop interview on March 8, Prime Minister John Howard responded to a question about the possibility of speeding up processing of applications. "We will process people as speedily as we can but ... [we have a] .. policy of mandatory detention in humane conditions, and I would assert the conditions are humane, there's proper food, clothing, in the circumstances proper shelter, medical attention, educational support for children."
"I understand that living in a detention centre in Woomera is not as comfortable an existence as living in the community in Australia, I accept that...", Howard blustered, in a 3AW radio interview on March 8.
"I wish there were an effective alternative but there is not... Some people are coming forward with the alternative of just abandoning mandatory detention. Well, we're not in favour of that, nor do I understand is the Labor Party, although I never quite know where they sit on this."
According to ABC news on March 9, immigration minister Philip Ruddock said, "Australia's system of mandatory detention of asylum seekers is saving lives as a result of its deterrent effect".
Ruddock claimed that current problems at the Woomera detention centre were being "exaggerated" by refugee advocates. He said he "is concerned this serves to create a false belief among asylum seekers that inappropriate behaviour will help their cause".
"The January protests in solidarity with the Woomera hunger strikers gave strength to the notion that joint action between detained asylum seekers and the refugees' rights movement can have a powerful effect on public opinion", Lisa Macdonald, a member of Sydney's Free the Refugees Campaign, told Green Left Weekly. Macdonald noted that support for mandatory detention dropped from 71% prior to the November 10 federal election to a low of 56%, according to a Newspoll conducted in early February.
"It is important that this current cry for help from Iraqi asylum seekers in Woomera detention centre generates a massive response from the people of Australia", Macdonald added. "The next opportunity for a national mobilisation on a potentially mass scale is the Palm Sunday marches organised in many cities on March 24. It is vital that we make these marches as big as possible."
From Green Left Weekly, March 13, 2002.
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