Mon, Dec 22, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Afghan hunger strikers demand justice from Australia


Amin Janamin vowed to let no food or water pass his lips as he sewed them together nearly a fortnight ago. The former mine clearance officer from Afghanistan's Paktia province was in hospital on Saturday, suffering severe kidney pains and being hydrated through a drip-feed. Friends say he has resolved to die unless something is done for his 283 fellow detainees in an Australian refugee camp on the Pacific island of Nauru.

"The hunger strikers are determined," said Hassan Ghulam of Australia's Hazara ethnic society, who is in regular contact with the Nauru detainees. "They have signs on their hospital beds, saying, `After I am dead, don't undo my lips.'"

The number of strikers has grown to 35 since the protest began on Dec. 9, and 15 of them are now in hospital as the searing 50?C heat of Nauru's dry season takes its toll. Most shelter from the sun under a makeshift plastic canopy at the entrance to the Topside camp, surrounded by the blazing white coral of Nauru's interior. Their friends mop them with wet towels and shake them to check if they are still conscious; those who pass out are taken to the hospital, but at least two detainees have already discharged themselves and rejoined the protest after treatment. Some have been urinating blood.

Most of the detainees are Afghans whose refugee applications have been rejected because their country is now regarded as safe by the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR). A smaller number of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees have had their visas rejected on the same grounds. Roughly a third of the detainees are children.

"Now, when we are in the Australian-made detention centers, we don't think we have been treated better than what the Taliban and other cruel governments did with us,' wrote detainee Chaman Shah Nasiri in an e-mail as the protest began.

The UNHCR yesterday took the unusual step of issuing a statement calling for leniency in defining Afghanistan and Iraq as safe countries. The agency has pulled back its own staff in Afghanistan after a French UNHCR officer was shot dead in a marketplace in Ghazni last month.

Declaring that the situation in Nauru was "becoming a human tragedy," the statement stressed "the need to make exceptions, given the prevailing security conditions" in the refugees' home countries.

A delegation from the UNHCR visited the camp last week and is expected to report on the situation next week.

The refugees were brought to the country as part of Australia's Pacific solution, the policy whereby asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat were processed offshore in Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island. The policy was introduced at the height of a public scare about immigration in the run-up to Australia's 2001 election.

The Australian government initially refused to get involved in the situation, saying that the camp had nothing to do with Australia and the detainees were not refugees.

On Friday it agreed to sponsor a visit to Nauru next week by a former Australian immigration minister and an Afghan community representative, in an attempt to break the strike.

Media and lawyers have been excluded from Nauru since soon after the camp was opened, but Maarten Dormaar, a Dutch psychologist who worked at the Topside camp last year before resigning in despair, has written that conditions for refugees on Nauru make the island "a psychiatrist's nightmare."

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