January 10, 2015 | VICE News
An Iranian asylum seeker being held in detention in Australia has begun a hunger strike that he says he will see through until “the end.” This could mean going as far as legally blocking attempts to force feed him once he reaches the point of unconsciousness. And the case highlights the unique legal limbo that Iranians who flee to Australia find themselves in.
“He told me to say, ‘I’m going as far as it’s going. Tell them I’m doing it for the others. There’s no chance of me going back,'” his lawyer John Lawrence SC told VICE News from Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory.
Lawrence represents the 33-year-old Iranian in Wickham Point Detention Centre near Darwin, and spoke to his client the night before his interview with VICE News.
Lawrence is a former president of the Northern Territory Bar Association and a director of the Law Council of Australia. The Australian government has given his client the choice of volunteering to return to Iran or staying in indefinite detention in Australia. Instead he has chosen starvation.
“Medics tell you after a certain period, 60 days or so without food, you enter a serious danger zone where you lose your mind and your organ function collapses. What happens to you in a hunger strike is a world unto itself,” said Lawrence.
“The migration act allows his detainers to force feed him if he loses consciousness or he loses his faculties to the point where he can’t exercise his legal decision making,” the lawyer explained. “In anticipation of the immigration department using that regulation to feed him, he has written and signed directions for whoever has custody of him when he is in that state. He doesn’t want to be fed.
“At that point it becomes a moral nightmare, for me and the authorities, and the doctors,” Lawrence continued. He knows full well that it will be his job to fight for his client’s wish to die, but he has confidence the advanced personal care plan document they have prepared will prevent any medical intervention.
The situation of the Iranian, who doesn’t want to be named for fear of retributions against his family in Iran, is a peculiar one.
He fled from Iran in May 2010 after mass demonstrations — known internationally as the green movement — enveloped the country. He then made his way to Indonesia, where he boarded a boat bound for Australia. His boat was intercepted somewhere near Christmas Island, off the west coast of Australia, and like all asylum seekers who arrive in the country he was then put into mandatory detention for his claim to be processed.
Now, after almost five years, his claim for refugee status and a protection visa has been denied and avenues for appeal exhausted. For detainees of most nationalities, Australian government policy is to forcibly deport them back to their country of origin. But Iran refuses to accept people who have fled. This leaves Lawrence’s client with a dilemma: go back to Iran voluntarily or remain behind bars in Australia indefinitely.
“He understands he will be arrested by the police when he arrives, taken into custody, tortured, and perhaps killed,” Lawrence said. “I can’t tell you if that would happen, but that is his understanding, and I have no reason to doubt that he genuinely believes that.”
Iranians have been fleeing to Australia in increasing numbers since 2010. According to UNHCR, Iranian arrivals in Australia rose from 300 to 2000 a year between 2009 and 2011.
“He’s of the view that this isn’t going to have any effect on his own case,” continued Lawrence. “He wanted me to stress to you that he’s taking this action, ending in his own demise, on behalf of the others from Iran he’s met in detention, and the many more that he hasn’t met, who are living in this legal limbo.”
This is not the first time Lawrence’s client has gone on hunger strike. At the end of 2014 he went for 51 days without food, only stopping when it appeared his appeal would be heard in the High Court. Now that it appears his appeals will be futile, he has renewed the strike.
Lawrence met with him just before Christmas, encouraging him to have faith in the appeals process. At that point he had lost 23 kilograms of body mass.
“He was wheelchair bound. One of his feet was badly swollen with an infection and he had very bloodshot eyes. Even though he speaks English with me usually, he couldn’t communicate without an interpreter, he didn’t have the energy to think in English.”
Hunger strikes among migrants are not new in Australia. In just one incident in January 2014, 78 detainees at the Christmas Island detention centre went on hunger strike and nine asylum-seekers stitched their lips together in a bid to protest against living in legal limbo for six months.
In response to these protests, then Immigration Minister Scott Morrison refused to discuss the protests, saying it could “encourage other people” to do the same, and that “when people engage in protest activity, it does not change what will happen with their case or where they will go.”
Yet none has gone to the legal lengths that have been seen in this case, to ensure no feeding measures are implemented.
Pamela Curr, a former nurse and refugee detention rights advocate, told VICE News that situations like these are all too common.
“The trouble is we just don’t know, sometimes people will go home and be safe, while others are subjected to the most brutal, vile torture. These people are saying I would rather die on my own hands than by someone else’s,” Curr said. “I’ve seen children who refuse to eat. I’ve seen hospitals not wanting to return children to detention because of the conditions.”
Lawrence added: “For 18 months, my client was on a community visa, living in Canberra. But the rest of the time, he has been in custody. He has seen detainees self-harming, he has seen detainees losing their mind; he has been diagnosed with PTSD and chronic depression, by virtue of his experience on the journey to Australia and his subsequent detention.”
Lawrence continues to write to Immigration Minister Peter Dutton regarding his client’s case. They join a number of letters he wrote to the former immigration minister. As of yet, he has not received any replies