Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said yesterday that reports of a hunger strike among Malaysia-bound asylum seekers would not deter her from the controversial refugee swap plan.
Immigration officials played down claims from refugee activists of the protest among the first group preparing to set off for Malaysia under Gillard’s deal with the Southeast Asian nation.
“There is no one on hunger strike of which we are aware,” an immigration spokesman said. “Just because someone misses a meal or two does not mean they are on voluntary starvation.”
Activist Ian Rintoul said a man from the group had made brief contact via mobile phone to plead for help and announce that some people had begun a hunger strike to protest against their expulsion to Malaysia.
Gillard said she was “aware” of the reports, but they would not sway her determination to see the newly finalized policy through.
“As we’ve made clear all along, the returns to Malaysia aren’t a question of volunteering, this will be done,” she told reporters.
“Our aim is to smash the people smugglers’ business model, our aim is to not see people put themselves in boats and be at risk of losing their lives,” she added.
Under the plan, signed off in Malaysia last month, Australia will send 800 boatpeople to the Asian nation in exchange for 4,000 of its registered refugees in a move intended to send a deterrent message to people smugglers.
The UN children’s agency slammed the scheme as “inhumane” on Friday after it emerged that 18 of the 55 people in the first contingent were minors, 13 of whom were believed to be traveling without a parent or guardian.
Gillard said Canberra had “worked through” the issue with the UN and there were “protections” set out in the agreement with Malaysia, adding that there would be children among the 4,000 refugees resettled in Australia.
The immigration department said a departure date had not yet been set for the group, but they would be transferred “as soon as practicable.”
Refugees are a thorny political issue in Australia, although relatively small numbers of boatpeople make for its shores by world standards. The government has a mandatory detention policy for asylum seekers who arrive by boat through a popular people-smuggling corridor from Indonesia.