Some 500 asylum seekers are on hunger strike at a detention center in Australia. At least nine men are believed to have sewn their lips together, and one is said to have also swallowed razor blades.
"A number of transferees continue a peaceful protest within the Manus Regional Processing Centre," said a spokesperson from Immigration Minister Peter Dutton's office on Thursday. "A small number of transferees have engaged in self-harm. They have been offered appropriate medical care. There are also a number of transferees who are refusing food and fluids, again they are being offered appropriate support."
The asylum seekers are being held in an Australian camp on the remote Manus Island in Papua New Guinea while their claims are processed and Australia arranges resettlement in another country. Many of the detainees are now entering their second year of detention.
Conditions inside the center have deteriorated. Running water stopped at the camp on Tuesday morning and has not been restored, contributing to the unrest within. Recent weeks also saw up to 60 percent of the facility's staff walk off the job after reportedly not being paid, although they are apparently now being paid again.
"Things have never been good on Manus Island, but this is certainly the biggest protest," Ian Rintoul, an advocate with the Refugee Action Coalition, told VICE News. "Things are coming to a head."
A 40-year-old Egyptian Christian pleaded to be allowed to see his daughter and his sister, who are Australian citizens, before his death.
"I'm want to die," the man said earlier this week before sewing his lips shut, according to a fellow detainee who spoke to theGuardian. "I just have one option, I just want to see my daughter and my sister. They are live in Australia for the last eight years. I miss them. I have to see them."
Images depicted the man with his lips sewn shut.
The man also reportedly ingested a number of razor blades and collapsed a short time later. A fellow detainee captured the moment on video and relayed it to the Refugee Action Coalition.
"I was there, I was with him, I went with him to the medical," said a detainee who spoke to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "He go and swallow four razor [blades]. He vomit one and three [are] still inside his body."
"His body become white," the man continued. "His skin become totally white… and his leg… become blue, so terrible."
The man's sister, Samara, gave a tearful interview with the ABC.
"When he talks with me yesterday, I asked him what happened, he said, 'I took razors' and he's sewing his lips. I asked him why you take this bad thing?" she said. "I said to him, 'You're not to die,' and he said, 'Yes, I want to die'."
His current condition is unconfirmed, but he has received medical treatment.
Meanwhile other detainees continue to protest, and send messages to refugee advocates across Australia.
Manus is part of a solution put forward by the Australian government to end the arrival of boats of asylum seekers in Australian waters. All asylum seekers are now detained, and many are sent to detention in third party countries like Papua New Guinea or Nauru. When their claims are processed they will be resettled away from Australia. The government argues this acts as a deterrent against illegal immigrants hoping to live in Australia.
But the process of resettlement appears to have ground to a halt, with no permanent resettlement plan in place for the detainees except for a limited resettlement in Papua New Guinea feared by many asylum seekers. Their concerns are strongly tied to their encounters with Papua New Guinean authorities, and indeed what occurred the last time detainees attempted a protest.
"It's only a year since PNG police and locals launched a savage attack on the center, they beat Reza Barati to death," Rintoul said, referring to a 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker who died in clashes early last year. "One man lost his eye, another was shot."
The incident stemmed from a protest that escalated into a riot between February 16 and 18. Guards form the security company G4S that had been hired to manage the center at the time allowed Papua New Guinean police and locals into the compound, and violence ensued between them and the detainees.
"Numerous witness reports state that he [Barati] was attacked using fists, feet and bats by a group of G4S staff and at least one local staff member employed by The Salvation Army," read a submission to an Australian government inquiry by Amnesty International. "Several eyewitnesses reported that one attacker picked up a large rock and hit [Mr. Barati] on the head with it several times."
Two Papua New Guineans — one a G4S guard, the other an employee of the Salvation Army — have been charged in PNG with Barati's murder.
"I've been told that Australian staff at the center use PNG and PNG police as a threat to the detainees: 'You return to your rooms or we will use PNG police to clear the protest,' " said Rintoul. "In the context of Manus, the implied threat with that kind of statement is huge. This protest shows the situation has become so desperate, the detainees are willing to risk that."