This story is over 5 years old.


Guards Break Barricades and Jail Dozens as Refugees Continue Mass Hunger Strike Against Australia

The detainees who claim to be refugees are continuing to refuse food, raising the possibility of a health crisis at the center. The protestors demand Australia hand them over to the UN.
Photo by Department of Immigration and Border Protection via Flickr

Guards forced their way through barricades this week to try to end a mass hunger strike by hundreds of asylum seekers being held by Australia on Papua New Guinea's (PNG) Manus Island.

The asylum seekers, who arrived in Australia on boats from Indonesia claiming refugee status, have been held on the island and told they will never enter Australia. Some have been detained for over 18 months while Australia finds an alternative country to resettle them. Their protracted detention and fears over being resettled in PNG sparked the protest.


The tense situation — which by Wednesday will see a number of what an advocate told VICE News are 900 detainees on hunger strike enter their seventh day without food — escalated on Monday to the point where the Delta and Oscar compounds of the island's detention center were barricaded by the hunger strikers, which prevented staff from accessing large parts of the facility.

Footage released by the Refugee Action Coalition showed the moment when guards stormed Delta compound in riot gear. Staff can be heard saying "no phones" as the video is recorded.

In an interview with Sky News, Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton admitted that "a degree of force" was used against protestors at the Australian-run facility during Monday's operation to regain control of sections of the camp.

"Yesterday afternoon the PNG authorities took a decision that they wanted to enter into the facility to provide support," Dutton said. "Particularly to those who had been denied support, to those that were in need of medical assistance, those people who didn't want to partake in the activities of others."

The minister alleged in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that asylum seekers had "fashioned weapons," which had been uncovered during the raid of the compound and subsequent PNG police inquiries.

Asylum seekers held by Australia are stitching their lips together and swallowing razor blades. Read more here.


"There was a major challenge to the policy of the government and I'm pleased to say that that challenge has been defeated," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters in Sydney. "That blockade has now been broken thanks to good work by Transfield and their instant response team backed up of course by the Royal PNG constabulary."

Transfield is the private company running the center under contract to the Australian government, and they use security staff from Wilson Security.

When asked if asylum seekers were harmed, Abbott only said: "The important thing is order was restored."

PNG authorities said the protest was ended when Mataio Rabura, chief of the country's immigration authority, entered Delta compound in the facility and spoke with protest leaders. It is believed negotiations are ongoing.

The Refugee Action Coalition claims protestors were restrained and dragged away by security and immigration officials, and that 58 were taken to PNG's Lorengau prison.

Manus Island Provincial Police Commander Alex N'Drasal confirmed to ABC that four asylum seekers were locked in police cells, while 40 others remained in Lorengau provincial jail. They are currently being held without charge while investigators collect evidence, according to N'Drasal.

The 'hopelessness' on Manus Island and the death of Reza Barati. Read more here.

Journalist Shane Bazzi is one of the few asylum seeker advocates who has been in constant contact with detainees during the protests.


"I have been told 910 are continuing the hunger strike," Bazzi told VICE News. "Now there's no way to confirm that number. But certainly various sources have told me that it's a substantial number."

Other reports have put the number of hunger strikers at around 700.

Even with several protestors detained, there are fears that the situation could continue to deteriorate, as the ability of medical staff to treat the hunger strikers has come into question.

"Multiple sources told me that three asylum seekers who had fallen unconscious for approximately an hour today couldn't go to medical services because it was full," said Bazzi.

Dutton has been critical of advocates talking to media during the protests, even going as far as to allege they exacerbated the situation.

"I would also like to note my extreme disappointment with some advocates who encouraged and fuelled this behavior," the minister said in a statement on Tuesday.

"He didn't name me. But I think I'm one of the people he's referring to," said Bazzi.

"All the advocates I know, and myself, have been pleading with the guys not to self-harm," he added. "It's disgraceful to allege that any advocates encouraged that situation, and to do it without providing any evidence."

Over the course of the protest there have been numerous reports of self-harm. Thirty protestors had reportedly stitched their lips together, while two had swallowed razor blades, and several others had swallowed detergent in efforts to self-harm.


Dr. Barri Phatarfod with Doctors For Refugees told VICE News that as they approach a week of their hunger strike, refugees are reaching a critical point.

"Starvation of only five to six days can make an individual susceptible to 're-feeding syndrome,'" he said. "Re-instituting food and water at that point can cause profound metabolic disturbances that can result in multi-organ failure and death.

"Attempts at rehydration and re-feeding after several days of starving need to be done in a hospital controlled environment with regular monitoring of vital signs, blood electrolytes, etc., and not in a hot tent in a detention camp while lying on a newspaper on the ground."

The Australian Medical Association told VICE News that it no longer provides comment on issues involving asylum seekers.

Photos from— Shane Bazzi (@shanebazzi)January 20, 2015

On Tuesday the remaining protestors released a letter asking for US President Barack Obama to intervene and help them leave Australian custody.

Part of the letter reads: "Mr. Obama, today Australia despite its image as a defender of human rights and justice has been keeping more than 2000 people in Manus and Nauru as hostage for more than 18 months, so that no refugee ever thinks of trying to seek Australian protection. Please rescue us from our hostage takers."

Asylum seekers on— Shane Bazzi (@shanebazzi)January 20, 2015

The asylum seekers are demanding to be handed over to the United Nations, rather than be settled in PNG, if they are not going to be taken in by Australia.

Follow Scott Mitchell on Twitter: @s_mitchell

Photovia Flickr