Australian Activists Join Manus Island Refugee Hunger Strike

Australian activists joined over 700 detained asylum seekers in a hunger strike Tuesday to protest the government’s abusive refugee policy.

“It is with a heavy heart that I watch the government turn a blind eye to the pleas of the refugees and the wider Australian public who are starving to express one simple idea: End the cruelty. Let them land, and let them stay,” Mia Sanders, a socialist candidate in the upcoming New South Wales (NSW) state elections, told teleSUR English.

Sanders and other youth activists from the Resistance Youth Socialist Alliance say their solidarity hunger strike aims to draw attention to human rights abuses in the Australian-run asylum seeker detention center in Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) Manus Island.

The center is just one of Australia’s offshore processing camps that are the cornerstone of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s policy of keeping refugees that arrive by boat off Australia’s shores. Abbott’s administration is one of the least popular first term governments in Australian history, according to recent poll results.

On the other hand, the solidarity hunger strike has growing public support, according to NSW socialist candidate Jemma Nott.

“I’ve been heartened by the positive response from people who support our actions, which I think is indicative that people share our outrage over the conditions of the refugees,” she said.

Manus Island’s “Harsh Conditions”

Detained asylum seekers on Manus Island began a hunger strike last week against what they say are unsafe conditions and lengthy processing times – criticisms echoed by Resistance activists.

Sanders told teleSUR the government is “recklessly endangering the lives of all the asylum seekers in Australia’s care, much to the horror of the onlooking public.”

The allegations are backed up by human rights monitors, including the United Nations Committee on Torture . In November 2014, the U.N. body issued a damning report that found detainees living in overcrowded, squalid camps with limited access to basic health care.

“The combination of these harsh conditions, the protracted periods of closed detention and the uncertainty about the future reportedly creates serious physical and mental pain and suffering,” the report concluded.

The same day the report was released, the U.N. refugee agency’s representative in Indonesia, Thomas Vargas, described the centers as “horrible.”

“Not only is it not humanitarian, but it’s illegal under international law,” said Vargas.

According to Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC), the latest protests on Manus Island began because, “Things have just come to a head.”

“It’s impossible to exaggerate the real fears that people have for their safety and for their lives,” he said in a statement, pointing to the death of one asylum seeker during unrest in early 2014.

The Australian government initially denied reports early last week of asylum seekers beginning hunger strikes on Manus Island.

Then during a press conference on Tuesday, Abbott announced the protest had been “broken” and “defeated.”

When asked if protesting asylum seekers had been abused, the prime minister stated, “The important thing is that order has been restored.”

RAC has dismissed Abbott’s claim that the protests are over, arguing instead that the prime minister’s statement has only further infuriated asylum seekers.

“Despite the security crack down, more than 700 asylum seekers are still on hunger strike, and the Manus crisis continues,” RAC said in a statement.

They have also accused authorities in the center of trying to break protesters withphysical beatings, deprivation of water, and round-ups of suspected protest organizers.

Resistance solidarity hunger striker Sarah Hathway slammed the government’s heavy-handed response, arguing asylum seekers have the right to peacefully protest.

“Any violence has been instigated by PNG police or private security. Refugees like anyone else have a right to protest they also have a right to seek asylum,” she told teleSUR from Geelong. “Manus Island is illegal and a series of human rights abuses from start to finish, and needs to be shut down.”

First published on teleSUR English here.

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