In the early hours of yesterday morning 28 refugees began a hunger strike at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) near Broadmeadows.
The thing is, the strikers are not transiting anywhere. They are being detained indefinitely as a result of adverse ASIO assessments. Most have been imprisoned for more than three years, some longer.
The refugees are striking outside in the detention centre's yard and are flying banners. “There is one that shows many people hanging. That is what we want to happen to us if we are not released,” the refugees said in an open letter sent to the Refugee Action Collective.
“People in here are jumping off roofs, they are going on hunger strikes, they are taking tablets, they are trying to hang themselves … It is a cruel and inhumane environment for everyone.”
In a comment provided to the Tamil Refugee Council, the strikers say guards are trying to shift them inside: “We told them we are not moving, that we are determined to see this through until there is a resolution one way or the other,” one striker said.
They also say the Department of Immigration and Citizenship installed a camera to film them while they made the banners, which was removed after objections, and that blankets and barriers have been erected against the fence to obscure the strikers from view.
The hunger strike is in response to a 3 April visit by Margaret Stone, the independent reviewer appointed to assess adverse claims.
According to refugee advocates, Stone provided 25 Sri Lankan refugees with the promised “statements of reasons” detailing reasons for ASIO’s decisions. The statements are reportedly short, “about seven lines long”, and do not detail supporting evidence. Two Afghan and two Rohingyan refugees are yet to receive their statements.
The statements are supposed to be unclassified written summaries of reasons for the adverse assessment. Content is only to be omitted or redacted if it would "prejudice the interests of security".
Refugee advocate Trevor Grant told NM that during her visit, Stone told the refugees “that there is no time-frame on her reviews, which could mean that they could be locked away for years”.
“This news was devastating to people who have already been incarcerated for three and four years. And it is the reason we are seeing this protest action.”
A spokesman for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship declined to speak about the independent review process, saying it was a matter for Stone's office. He did confirm that a protest was taking place, but added that “as of yesterday afternoon they were not engaging in voluntary starvation actions”.
When asked for department policy on what constitutes a hunger strike, the spokesman said he was “not familiar with anything … where it's written in policy or specifically defined”.
“As far as the department's concerned, we consider a voluntary starvation protest to be occurring … when it's been witnessed that they've missed three consecutive meals.” The department also claims that asylum seekers say they are hunger striking, but continue to secretly eat, which makes observation necessary.
Once the department's ad-hoc definition of a hunger strike is met, it's unclear what policy response is triggered, or if one exists. The spokesman said he “wouldn't want to speak again to the specific policy” and could not point NM to publicly available documents or procedures.
“But what occurs is that we make sure that they're aware that food and water are available at all times … They don't have to ask for it, they can just go and get it whenever they like and we ensure that they're monitored and that their health is looked after at all times.”
The strikers have a different view of the department's hospitality: “The guards came and asked us to drink water. They have constantly been doing this. But all the boys told them to stop asking us that. They are trying to deter us, but we will not be put off by them.”
“ASIO has made a secret report on us, a report that we can’t even see to challenge, and it means we are in jail for life.”
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