Chinese hunger strike continues at Australian detention centre

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Three Chinese men being held at Sydney's Villawood Immigration Detention centre have ended a four-week hunger strike. But another three detainees are continuing to refuse food for the 25th consecutive day. The men began their hunger strike on October 20 to protest Australia's Mandatory Detention policy.

Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney

They said they had been persecuted by the communist regime in China and came to Australia seeking protection. Four of the detainees were taken to hospital last week but three were released on Friday. The remaining man in hospital has ended his protest.

"Three detainees in Villawood remain on voluntary starvation," an immigration department spokesman said. "Two Villawood detainees have agreed to stop their hunger strike.

Australian refugee advocates say they are concerned about the welfare of the Chinese men, who have been on a hunger strike since October 20 at Sydney's Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. Three of the six men from mainland China are continuing to refuse food at the centre.

Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs has refused to process the Chinese Asylum Seekers claims until they stop the hunger strike. Amanda Vanstone, urges the hunger strikers to end their protest. "Participation in a hunger strike will not help the cause of the individuals concerned," the Minister said. "I have personally written to all six to advise them that I will not be considering any cases while protest activity continues."

The six original hunger strikers said in an October 29 statement that they are protesting against Australia's Mandatory Detention policy and the mental and physical impairment caused by the long-term detention in Villawood - during which, they say, many people suffer long-term insomnia, dysphoria, and even mental breakdown.

"We were persecuted by the communist regime in our own country where people lost their fundamental freedom, human rights, democratic rights and rule of law. Due to the inadequacy of the detention policy in Australia, we were forced to lose our freedom again and may, at any moment, be deported back to China and face severe persecution again," said the hunger strikers.

At a rally outside Villawood on October 29, the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) said the asylum seekers want to be released from detention while their claims for refugee status are processed. RAC spokesman Mark Goudkamp says the men have been in detention for up to nine months.

"We want to show people that they're not completely isolated, that they have support on the outside, and we want to get their message out as far as we can," he said. Mr Goudkamp says one of the asylum seekers is a Falun Gong practitioner and the others are pro-democracy, against the Chinese Government.

Ian Rintoul, also from the Refugee Action Coalition, says five of the men are asylum seekers and the sixth man's business visa has lapsed. "The treatment of the Chinese in detention shows that the department still has to face up to the underlying problems of mandatory detention," Mr Rintoul said.

"The Chinese are facing the same obstacles and the same departmental attitudes that kept asylum seekers behind the razor wire for years. The men make the point that they feel their lives are being destroyed by mandatory detention."

Mr Rintoul said most of the six Chinese asylum seekers had been living in Australia since the late 1990s and had children here. All had been taken to Villawood for immigration breaches and had lodged asylum claims, some of which had been rejected and were in the process of appeal. They want to be free to be reunited with their families.

The Immigration Department says the hunger strike will not influence decisions on the men's applications for asylum.

But Mr Rintoul says that is not what the strike is about. "What they can't understand is why that claim can't be processed while they're living in the community," he said. "What the hunger strike highlights is why the misery of mandatory detention continues."

Peter Job from the Victorian Greens has expressed grave concern for the remaining three detainees continuing their hunger strike past its twenty-sixth day. "Asylum seekers who maintain they have strong claims should have their cases re-heard. Given the obviously harmful nature of long term detention they should be allowed to live in the community while this takes place," said Mr Job.