Refugees detained in Papua New Guinea and desperate to reach Australia resort to hunger strikes and self-harm

An Iranian man was killed during a riot on Manus Island almost a year ago, and amid continuing local hostility, the asylum-seekers fear for their safety

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It is the latest grim episode in the long saga of Australia’s hardline asylum-seeker policies. In a detention centre on a faraway island, hundreds of “terrified” people are said to be refusing food and water, with the more desperate sewing their lips together and some reportedly swallowing razor blades and detergent, in protest at their treatment.

The scene is playing out on Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea (PNG) – at the same facility where a 23-year-old Iranian, Reza Barati, was killed during a riot almost a year ago. Two Papua New Guinean men who worked at the detention centre have been charged with his murder. Conditions at the centre have been repeatedly criticised by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Now tensions are running high again, with a hunger strike entering its fifth day yesterday and reports – denied by both the Australian and PNG governments – of violent clashes between security guards and protesters on Friday.

One spark for the latest unrest, according to refugee advocates, is the imminent relocation of dozens of men who were recently granted refugee status to a non-secure transit centre on the outskirts of Lorengau, Manus’s main town. Following Barati’s death last February, and amid continuing local hostility, the refugees fear for their safety.

It is those concerns, along with a myriad of other grievances – including lengthy incarceration and a temporary lack of water for showers – that prompted detainees to go on hunger strike last Tuesday. Some have been held on Manus for 18 months, awaiting a decision on their asylum status.

According to refugee groups, several hundred people have been refusing food and water, with up to 40 of them stitching their lips together. Four Pakistani men have reportedly been treated in hospital after swallowing washing powder, and two Iranians have swallowed razor blades.

The sister of a 39-year-old Egyptian on hunger strike at Manus told Australia’s ABC that she feared he would die. The woman, who gave her name as Samar, said: “When he talks with me... I asked him what happened. He said, ‘I took razors’ and he’s sewing his lips. I ask him why… He said, ‘Yes, I want to die.’ He said to me, ‘All my body, it’s white and my legs are blue.’”

Ian Rintoul, a refugee advocate and spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition, who is in close contact with Manus detainees, said in a statement yesterday: “The asylum-seekers are terrified of a repeat of the February attacks last year.”

Protesting asylum-seekers in Manus Island centre

Barati was beaten by a group of guards and local residents who had entered the centre during the violence last February, according to a government-commissioned official report released a few months later. A separate inquiry by the Australian Senate found that last year’s violence had been “eminently foreseeable”, and that the government had “failed in its duty” to protect Manus inmates.

The inquiry added: “It is undeniable that a significant number of local service provider staff, as well as a small minority of expat staff, were involved in the violence against transferees”.

The Canberra government, which is determined to prevent asylum-seekers from arriving on its shores by boat after a hazardous journey across the Indian Ocean, has warned the protesters they will never be allowed to live in Australia. While PNG has agreed to resettle refugees, their future there is gloomy. Most Papua New Guineans live in grinding poverty, and jobs are scarce.

The precise situation on Manus this weekend is unclear, although photos and videos sent to Australian news organisations apparently show some detainees with minor head injuries, others on stretchers and security guards in riot gear.

The Australian Immigration Ministry said yesterday that reports of violence were untrue and the majority of detainees were calm and co-operative. A spokesperson said: “The department has advised the government that while some transferees engaged in disruptive behaviour late [on Friday], claims reported by some media outlets [on Saturday] that transferees were violently engaged by guards … at the centre are not correct.”

These sentiments were echoed by PNG, with a PNG government spokesman stating: “There was no physical engagement between asylum-seekers and security personnel,” according to the ABC.

Refugee advocates claimed yesterday that asylum-seekers had barricaded the gates to their compound and had refused to open the gate to allow a forklift, reportedly carrying bottled water, to enter.

Describing the atmosphere at the camp as “volatile” and worrying, the Australian Immigration minister, Peter Dutton, acknowledged  on Friday that some men had “engaged in self-harm” while others were on hunger strike. They were being offered “appropriate medical care”, he said. The ministry reiterated yesterday that this medical assistance continued to be available to all detainees.

In a letter to the minister on Friday, asylum-seekers begged him to show compassion, telling him: “We will die in PNG if Australian government resettles us in PNG. Take us to Australia please or we will die here.”

Australian minister Peter Dutton (Getty)

In a separate letter, hunger-striking detainees expressed fears for their safety in the PNG community and said they would prefer to die in the centre.

However, Mr Dutton, who has only recently taken over the immigration portfolio from his hardline predecessor, Scott Morrison, pledged there would be no softening of Australian policy.

He said his message to those on Manus was that while there had been a ministerial reshuffle, it remained the government’s “absolute resolve” that they would “never arrive in Australia”.

Since the middle of 2013, asylum-seekers heading for Australia have been intercepted mid-ocean and taken to PNG or the Pacific island nation of Nauru for processing. Those deemed genuine refugees have been told they will be resettled in PNG or Cambodia while the rest are to be deported.

A Greens senator for South Australia, Sarah Hanson-Young, reportedly renewed calls for an independent inspection of the facility yesterday.

“There does need to be a proper independent investigation into what is going on at the asylum-seeker centre,” she said, according to the Australian Associated Press.

Ms Hanson-Young said she understood that some asylum-seekers were believed to be refusing medical attention. “Rejecting medical assistance is because they feel they would prefer to die than to suffer inside, and that’s an awful situation the government needs to respond to,” AAP reported. “I plead with anybody inside that centre: please don’t hurt yourself.”

The MP for Manus Island, Ronnie Knight, urged Australia not to keep the men there indefinitely. “Some of them have been there for nearly two years now and they are human beings,” he said.