January 16, 2014 | the guardian
As mass hunger strike enters fourth day, immigration minister accuses refugee workers of ‘coaching’ detainees in self-harm, but advocates deny Peter Dutton’s claim.
The immigration minister, Peter Dutton, has accused refugee advocates of coaching asylum seekers to self-harm and of creating a “volatile” situation onManus Island, where a mass hunger strike has entered its fourth full day.
After denying a hunger-strike was occurring for two days, Dutton said on Friday he was very concerned for the welfare of striking detainees, but alleged they were being “coached” to self-harm by refugee advocates in Australia and workers on Manus Island.
Late on Friday afternoon, violent clashes broke out between Papua New Guinea police and detainees.
Detainees said several hundred security guards and police had entered the compounds and fights had broken out as detainees were pushed into their rooms.
“The police and guards attack to us … it is really bad situation,” a panicked man said in a message sent to Guardian Australia. The sound of yelling could be heard in the background.
Earlier, Dutton said protests by asylum seekers would not change the government’s resolve and that the detainees would never be moved to Australia.
“My very clear message today is to people that would seek to misinform those transferees, that somehow if their behaviour is changed or that they become noncompliant, that somehow that will result in them settling in Australia: it will not,” he said.
“That is a very clear, strong and determined message from me as minister. And that will not change.”
Detainees have denied being encouraged to protest or to harm themselves.
“No, never ever. Never,” one detainee told Guardian Australia in response to the minister’s comments. “He’s a liar.”
And refugee advocates have reacted furiously, saying they had spent the past week urging asylum seekers not to go on hunger strike or commit acts of self-harm.
“I am affronted by this allegation,” said Ben Pynt of advocacy group Humanitarian Research Partners, “when I have spent the last week trying to stop people doing this, telling them not to self-harm. The minister offers no evidence for his accusations. I can show plenty of evidence of me saying to these men ‘do not do this’, ‘do not hurt yourself’, ‘you need to live’.”
Pynt sent Guardian Australia transcripts of electronic conversations with detainees on the island.
The latest information from the island suggests up to 500 men are engaged in a hunger strike that started in Mike compound on Tuesday but has since spread to other compounds.
At least 20 men have stitched their lips shut in protest. Two men have swallowed razor blades, while four men drank detergent overnight Thursday as the protest worsened.
Staff on the island have told Guardian Australia the entire detention centre is on lockdown, meaning no staff are permitted in the compounds because of a “high security alert”.
Security teams have judged that it is unsafe for staff to enter. There have been reports of fights breaking out between guards and protesting detainees.
Non-essential staff have been sent to their accommodation – including some medical staff removed from the International Health and Medical Services medical centre – and only emergency patients can get treatment.
Video footage obtained by Guardian Australia shows several unconscious detainees being taken to the medical centre on stretchers.
Men are falling unconscious at rate of about one every half-hour, according to detainees. Many can no longer stand or walk, but lie on blankets on the ground at the wire fence of their compound.
Those who can stand chant “What do we want? Freedom!”
“I don’t want to be dead,” one detainee told Guardian Australia. “I’m really scared. Every 30 minutes someone faints, but no one is coming to help us.”
This protest of the last four days follows weeks of increasing tension on the island and escalating desperation among asylum seekers.
Detainees are protesting the following:
- The length of time it has taken to process their refugee claims (some have been on the island 18 months with no decision)
- The conditions under which they are being held, particularly their medical care, the lack of running water and threats of violence against them
- The fear of being forcibly resettled on Papua New Guinea where they believe they will be attacked by locals resentful of the imposition of a new population on their island.
During riots in the centre last year, Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati was killedafter local police and guards invaded the centre and attacked asylum seekers.
On Friday, Dutton alleged some refugee advocates in Australia, as well as “a small number” of staff on Manus Island, were encouraging detainees to go on hunger strike, to self-harm or disobey the orders of staff.
“I very concerned that somehow people are conveying the message that through noncompliant behaviour, through refusing to take food and water, that that behaviour will change the outcome for those individuals in terms of their desire to be settled in Australia. It will not.”
The minister did not present any examples or evidence. The allegation was rejected by detainees on the island.
“No one told [us] anything to do,” a detainee told Guardian Australia from inside the detention centre. “We did it, and [are] keeping it because this is our last way. We would like to show to everybody our protest because we are victims.”
Another said: “Minister, why did he say like that? He needs to encourage us to keep going? No problem. The boys they will never give up, they said ‘grave or freedom’.”
Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition, rejected the minister’s allegation, and said the minister was ignoring the “desperation and very real fears” of the asylum seekers on Manus.
“Typically, the government seeks to blame some unnamed minority for the protests. But the asylum seekers are ‘coached’ by the brutality of the government’s offshore processing policy,” Rintoul said.
Victoria Martin-Iverson from the Refugee Rights Action Network said there was “zero evidence” that advocates had coached detainees, and said the men on Manus had a right to speak publicly and to protest.
“These men have clearly said they are losing their mental health, they are not safe to either return home or be forced to live in danger on Manus ‘in the community’. Indeed they have been begging to be turned over to the UN. They have lost faith that Australia will do the just or decent thing.
“These men are asking for other solutions to be found. Does anyone really believe that the government is genuinely concerned that they are harming themselves?”
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the protests were not encouraged, but the “human result of cruelty”.
“Refugees are suffering and I am worried that the minister’s harsh response will only inflame the situation,” she said. “For the minister to try and blame everyone else for the tragic situation is ridiculous and cowardly.”