The June 2002 Woomera hungerstrike
200 detainees on hungerstrike - and 800 people support them
Almost 200 asylum seekers locked up in Woomera started a hungerstrike in June 2002, and issued a statement. We asked for public endorsements of their statement and cause, and within days more than 660 organisations, alliances and individuals sent their names and comments.
This page lists the statement and links to the lists of names and comments sent to us, while it also includes some news about this hungerstrike.
The June 2002 strike was not the first one in Woomera. It had been preceded by a hunger strike and protests earlier that year - in January. That was the occasion where ABC reporter Natalie Larkins was arrested while on duty for Australia's nationial broadcaster, an historic event in the life of the Australian media - and Australia's International Press Freedom ranking, as we later on would learn. Our webpage contents concludes with a report about that protest.
Image above: A child's impression of Australasian Correctional Management (ACM) guards, armed with batons, beating up asylum seekers at Woomera - the tiny figure also carries a stick, but bleeds from the leg. A watercannon, outside the picture, blasts water across the area. (click the image for large version).
Network alert: Call from Woomera
23 June 2002, by Dave McKay, 10:30am, Monday, SA time - We have just received a call from a representative of the detainees at the Detention Centre in Woomera, that a decision has been taken by " two hundred" detainees to join in a hunger strike. That is almost all of the detainees at the centre. The detainee representative has asked that this information be relayed to the media around Australia. "It is a very serious hunger strike," he said. "For some it will be to the death."
The representative, from Mike Compound, says that he does not know the situation for certain in November Compound, where the families are housed, but he said that approximately twenty people had also chosen to sew their lips together to symbolise the way that the Howard Government has sought to silence them and their tragic stories.
The strike is in solidarity with asylum-seekers from Afghanistan who are being threatened with forced detention in the next few weeks if they refuse to sign an agreement to leave peaceably. Amongst those being forced to return are Hazara people, who have been persecuted by the Northern Alliance as well as the Taliban.
Others say that Osama bin Laden is still alive, and that the Taliban is still a serious threat in the villages, where they are out of sight of U.S. troops. And they say that some of the people who have been placed in power by the Northern Alliance are also guilty of atrocities against their own people.
A visitor to the detention centre this morning said that she spoke with a detainee who works in the kitchen and the detainee said that no one came for breakfast, not even the children.
Media Statement 25 June 2002 - for immediate release
Detainees at Woomera Detention Centre on hunger strike
It has come to our notice that up to 200 detainees in the Woomera Detention Centre have started a hunger strike in support of the about 85 Afghanis - many of whom are Hazara - who are to be forcibly deported by the Minister of Immigration unless they sign voluntary repatriation agreements. Detainees of Iranian origin have also endorsed and are taking part in this strike, since they fear they will be the next group chosen for forcible repatriation.
Representatives of the Afghani detainees report that of the 100,000 Taliban forces active in Afghanistan before the US strikes, only 5,000 were eliminated, and they fear that when U.S. forces leave recriminations will resume. They report that killings are already happening in villages. "It is a very serious hunger strike," one representative has said. "For some it will be to the death."
The detainees issued the following statement in support of their action:
"As humans we are privileged to liberty of life. The prejudiced medieval-like policy should be eliminated in this 21st Century, which is not suitable to give a developed and benevolent nation. In this camp the persecution has approached the pinnacle of cruelty.
We request to the Government of Australia, who are struggling against terrorism in Asian countries. Instead of this they should struggle against the terrorism of Immigration on innocent refugees.
Australia is struggling against the people smugglers, but here once again, we are deceived. We were deceived by the people smugglers from the dangerous sea waves to here, and now, after being two years in this hell, we are once again being smuggled by the Australian Immigration back to our hypocritical governments."
We understand that on Monday June 24, nobody at the Woomera Detention Centre came for breakfast, and that the hunger strikers include children.
We, the undersigned, hold the Minister of Immigration and the Howard government fully responsible for the reasons that led to this hunger strike and for anything that may befall the detainees during this hunger strike.
We express our dismay in the strongest possible terms with the horrendous attitude of the Howard government towards the UN Refugee Convention, particularly where it concerns Australia's promise to "not refoul asylum seekers", as well as the clear and unambiguous warnings of the UN that detention is only justifiable where States' security is at risk, and that detention is to be applied on a case-by-case basis only.
We have no confidence in the appalling rhetoric and the ongoing denial of expert evidence from the many professional bodies as well as from government advisory committees, by the current Minister of Immigration, who has proven time and again that he does not see eye to eye with the more than 120 refugee support, lobby and action groups in Australia, with not one exception. We call for the immediate resignation of this Minister as well as the immediate dismantling of the detention centres.
Australian asylum seekers in desperate hunger strike
World Socialist website
Asylum seekers imprisoned at Australia's remote Woomera detention centre have entered the third week of a hunger strike, while others have escaped into the surrounding semi-desert country. Their desperate actions are a last resort as they protest against their indefinite detention and the Howard government's latest plan to force Afghan refugees to return to their war-ravaged country.
Up to 190 of Woomera's 215 current detainees have been involved in the hunger strike which began on June 24. All but a few elderly detainees and children have refused to eat. Among the 50 children inside Woomera, some as young as nine have reportedly joined the fast against their parents' will.
About 15 of the detainees have sewed their lips together to emphasise their refusal to eat. One has collapsed and was taken to the Woomera Township for medical treatment. An Iranian detainee used his own blood to write "freedom" on a camp wall.
Detainees from Iran and Iraq have joined the hunger strike in solidarity with the Afghani asylum seekers and to expose the conditions in which refugees are held for months and years at Woomera. The remote former rocket-testing site often experiences overnight winter temperatures of minus 4 degrees Celsius.
The hunger strikers issued a public statement accusing the Australian government of barbarism. "As humans we are privileged to liberty of life. The prejudiced medieval-like policy should be eliminated in this 21st Century, which is not suitable to give a developed and benevolent nation. In this camp the persecution has approached the pinnacle of cruelty."
Just days before the hunger strike began; Woomera's Afghan detainees signed a pact to reject a repatriation deal between the Howard government and the Karzai administration in Kabul. Under the agreement, refugees who fled Afghanistan's war, repression and poverty are now threatened with forcible return. The Howard government, which is determined to exclude nearly all Afghani refugees, has declared that it will deport those who do not accept an offer of $A2,000 and a flight to Afghanistan.
Returning Afghans would be at risk of their lives in a country where US-led military forces continue to bomb and kill civilians in the name of the "global war on terrorism." Basic infrastructure has been devastated and ethnic conflict and persecution continues. Canberra's hypocrisy is exposed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's warning to Australian citizens not to visit Afghanistan because of the extreme dangers posed by the country's ongoing conflicts.
Previously, immigration authorities rejected the applications of a number of asylum seekers, claiming that they were lying about coming from Afghanistan. Now that the government has determined that the country is "safe," the former "non-Afghans" are all being accepted as Afghans so they can be forced to leave.
Ramatulla, an Afghan detainee, told the Australian: "They are all being accepted as genuine Afghans just by being (offered a ticket home) to Afghanistan. If they were genuine Afghans, why weren't they granted protection visas one year before? It is a cruel joke. All of the Afghan detainees are opposing the treaty offered by Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock in which he offers money for no security of life to go home."
At midnight on June 28, four days after the hunger strike began, 35 detainees -- 28 from Afghanistan, six from Iran and one from Iraq -- broke out of the Woomera camp, fleeing with the aid of anti-detention protesters. The protesters, who stated that they entered the camp's outer perimeter to conduct interviews with detainees, described the breakout as a spontaneous action initiated by the asylum seekers.
Immigration Minister Ruddock and his officials have responded to the hunger strike and escapes by cracking down on detainees. While attempting to discredit the hunger strikers by claiming that some were accepting food from staff, Ruddock reinforced a ban on media access to the detainees, cutting off all phones in the camp and banning visits by lawyers.
According to Jeremy Moore of the Woomera Lawyers group, which has been assisting the detainees, some hunger strikers have been refused their normal medication and taunted with food. "Some of the guards have been walking around in the middle of the night and offering them food and eating in front of them and basically treating them with disrespect," he told reporters.
Together with the South Australian state Labor government, the federal government has mounted an extensive police manhunt for the escapees and the protesters who are alleged to have aided them. A helicopter, plane, vehicles and dogs have been used to hunt down escapees over a 200,000-square kilometre area. Both the government and media have depicted the asylum seekers as criminals even though they fled to Australia to escape persecution and oppression.
The police recaptured five asylum seekers immediately and later found four escapees in the desert, 400 kilometres north of Woomera. After surviving three nights of below freezing temperatures without food, another two asylum seekers gave themselves up. Another escapee is thought to be stranded in the desert. Ten detainees, including boys aged 12 and 14, remain unaccounted for.
The plight of the boys is particularly tragic. Their father was granted refugee status and is living in Sydney, but they and their mother have been denied asylum and marked for deportation, splitting the family.
Police have arrested four protesters, who face up to 10 years jail for "aiding and abetting" the escapees. In the course of the operation, police seized a vehicle at a bush campsite and scoured it for detainees' fingerprints, without charging the eight campers.
Ruddock has demanded that the "full force of the law" be applied, including jail terms of up to five years for the escapees themselves. Under laws passed last September in the wake of the Tampa crisis, refugees convicted of escaping can be stripped of their rights to apply for asylum.
Even while issuing these threats, Ruddock callously declared that if escapees perished in the desert, it would be the fault of the protesters. In reality, the responsibility for these acts of desperation lies directly with the government and its policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers.
All the Woomera detainees have been incarcerated for at least 10 months and some for over two years. Half have exhausted their appeal rights. In many cases, like that of the young escapees, some family members have been granted visas while others have been refused. According to the Catholic welfare agency, Centacare, the boys are "not an isolated example".
The current hunger strike is the second within six months at Woomera. In January, hundreds of asylum seekers participated in a 16-day fast, ending it only when the government's Immigration Detention Advisory Group promised a resumption of visa processing for Afghan refugees and other concessions. The government admitted that it had frozen Afghan applications, extending detention for months, in order to argue that the installation of the Karzai regime meant it was safe to return to Afghanistan.
In another bid for freedom, 50 detainees broke out of Woomera at Easter during a demonstration outside the camp's fences. Eleven of those escapees are still on the run and are reportedly hiding in Melbourne and Sydney. Some who were captured took part in the latest breakout.
The number of detainees in Woomera has dropped from 950 to 215 since January. While some have been granted refugee status, the government refuses to state how many have been deported or removed to one of the other five holding camps across Australia. The entire process has been characterised by a flagrant disregard for basic democratic rights and contemptuous indifference to the plight of refugees whose only "crime" has been to seek to escape oppression and hardship to obtain a better life for themselves and their families.
Teenagers threaten suicide as refugee hunger strike escalates
World Socialist website
A hunger strike by hundreds of imprisoned asylum seekers against the Australian government escalated today with nine Afghan and Iraqi teenage refugees threatening to commit suicide unless authorities release them by Wednesday evening.
The boys, aged 14 to 17 years, have been held in barbaric conditions in the Woomera Detention Centre since arriving in Australia by boat, without their families, between six months and a year ago. Their lawyer, Rob McDonald, told the media that the youngsters are determined to drink poison or throw themselves off the prison's razor wire fence if they are not placed in alternative accommodation while their claims for refugee status are being processed.
Nine other unaccompanied minors have been fostered out in the past week, in a half-hearted attempt by the government to defuse the growing crisis. But the nine teenagers remain incarcerated, even though several of them have already been granted temporary visas, with no indication of when they can hope to get out. McDonald said that some of the boys had passed notes to the media last week appealing for support and had since been punished.
Prime Minister John Howard and Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock have responded with predictable disdain for the children's fate. Ruddock, as part of his continuing campaign to stigmatise asylum seekers and their legal representatives, implied that McDonald's statement was a hoax.
"We're dealing with human rights advocates who purport to be acting for the detainees and they've made a lot of comments at various times which don't reflect reality," he said, without offering a single example of false reporting.
Howard didn't bother to address the boys' threat at all, simply reiterating, as he departed for a trip to the United States, that his government's policy of mandatory detention for all asylum seekers would continue unchanged.
But Paris Aristotle, a member of the government's own Immigration Detention Advisory Group who, unlike Ruddock or Howard, has visited the Woomera Detention Centre during the past week, said it was highly possible that the youngsters had made such a pact.
"I certainly believe it's possible that there are threats of suicide pacts, I mean these are daily occurrences at the moment, these sorts of things," he told reporters.
According to lawyers and refugee groups, the number of Woomera detainees participating in the hunger strike has increased to 370, with refugees from Afghanistan being joined by Iranians and others. The strikers' demands are to be removed from Woomera, a living hell-hole located in the middle of the South Australian desert, in a hot, treeless dustbowl, and for their visa applications be processed.
The government, which has tried to downplay the extent of the protest since it began two weeks ago, maintains there are just 259 involved, up from 181 a few days ago. But it has been forced to admit that the strike has spread to three other detention centres, where inmates have begun refusing food, stitching their lips and committing acts of self-harm in solidarity with the Woomera hunger strikers.
The Immigration Department confirmed that on Sunday, six refugees at the Curtin centre in Western Australia swallowed poison, while at Woomera an Afghan mother of two tried to hang herself, a male detainee drank shampoo and three children were taken to hospital after acts of "self-harm".
A former Woomera doctor, Bernice Pfitzner, who worked in the centre from October 2000 to June 2001, explained that these types of acts were not new.
"During the time [when I was there] there were instances of these attempted suicides and self-harm that would be twice a month," she said. "Now I hear from sources still there that hanging, slashing and lip sewing is an almost daily occurrence."
Anxiety and depression were far worse than the authorities were prepared to admit, she said. Once people hit the six-month mark, they started to go "mad" in the environment.
Babak Ahmadi, a geologist from Iran who was released after 20 months in Woomera, asked: "How can a person sit in detention in the middle of the desert for two years? Our emotions are crushed. Most people are mentally sick."
The media has been barred from visiting any of the country's five immigrant detention centres or speaking to detainees since the hunger strike began. At Woomera, journalists have been allowed no closer than 750 metres from the barbed wire fence that encircles the camp, forced to rely on government press releases or statements from lawyers, as they come and go, the only members of the public allowed in.
Last Saturday night, around 200 asylum seekers climbed onto the roof of the Woomera centre, holding placards and yelling "visa", "visa" in an effort to communicate their demands. One refugee threw himself onto the razor wire fence in full view of the media and was rushed to hospital, where he remains in a serious condition. In response, the government called in extra security guards who proceeded to force reporters back another 200 metres. Some objected, demanding to know why, and on what authority, whereupon ABC reporter Natalie Larkins was arrested for "failing to leave Commonwealth land".
The ABC has announced it will "vigorously defend" the charge brought against Larkins and the Media Entertainment Arts Alliance (MEAA) has demanded the dropping of the charges, the reversal of restrictions on access and accused the government of suppressing information.
"In the eyes of the international community we're looking more like a military dictatorship than a free democracy," commented Dana Worley, MEAA South Australian branch secretary.
Federal secretary Chris Warren told ABC radio, "It's frankly unbelievable that in this century the government would be resorting [to] these sorts of laws to prevent public reporting and debate on such an important issue. The government is clearly getting in the way of the public knowing what's going on."
Paul Boylan, another lawyer representing Woomera asylum seekers, says the administration has begun improving aspects of the site in the expectation that the media will eventually gain access. Fresh paint has been applied, and pathways have been lined with bark chips, new trees and shrubs.
Boylan insisted that he knew "what goes on in there and it's appalling... It's also shocking that our government would want to hide the truth from its own citizens."
International condemnation of the Howard government's detention policy is intensifying. Articles have appeared in the past days, in sections of the British, European and US media, unfavourably comparing conditions in Woomera to those being meted out by the US government to Taliban and Al-Qaida prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
On Monday the Red Cross published a letter in the national daily, the Australian, raising concerns for the physical, emotional and psychological welfare of the protesters. Secretary general Martine Letts declared that the organisation was disturbed about how the detainees' actions were being portrayed -- that acts of human despair were being depicted as culturally based.
Amnesty International has issued a statement branding mandatory detention a "failure" and calling on the government to release, at the very least, families with children.
"Hunger strikes, self-harm and attempted suicides have obvious roots in extreme desperation," the human rights organisation declared.
The government's refusal to accommodate the asylum seekers' most minimal demands threatens an appalling tragedy. The spectre of multiple deaths has prompted frantic efforts within ruling circles to work out some kind of exit strategy for Howard and Ruddock. While remaining a staunch supporter of mandatory detention, which the Australian Labor Party introduced in 1992, Labor leader Simon Crean called on Saturday for unaccompanied children to be fostered out, and for mothers and children to be relocated into "more appropriate housing". Likewise, the government's Immigration Detention Advisory Group yesterday made a tactical retreat, recommending to the government that the Woomera Detention Centre, which it described as "extremely harsh", be shut down.