A major protest has erupted inside the Christmas Island immigration detention centre. The Australian government controls the tiny island over 300 miles off the coast of Indonesia.
It is the largest protest to confront them since the 19 July 2012 riot and fire that destroyed their detention camp in the Republic of Nauru in the South Pacific.
The Christmas Island detention centre itself was partly destroyed in an uprising by asylum seekers in March 2011.
Now at least ten people have stitched their lips together and hundreds are on hunger strike in both the single men’s and family compounds.
Around 80 single men have been on hunger strike for over a week. They have been joined by 350 people in one of the family compounds. Up to ten people have been hospitalised after attempting suicide or self-harming with glass and razor blades.
The centre is a shockingly overcrowded warehouse for around 2,200 asylum seekers, all of whom have arrived since 19 July 2012.
That was the start of “Pacific Solution Mark II” introduced by Kevin Rudd’s Labour government.
Tory Prime Minister Tony Abbott was elected last September on a hard-line “stopping the boats” anti-refugee policy.
He says all asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat will be sent to Nauru or to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, and never resettled in Australia. These are called offshore centres, in that they are based in other countries.
Abbott is now involved in a serious diplomatic row after Australian navy boats violated Indonesian territorial waters when secretly towing asylum boats back to Indonesia.
The conditions on Christmas Island are atrocious, with inadequate medical services and too few toilets.
In December, the Australian Guardian newspaper published a damning confidential report by 15 doctors about Christmas Island.
They revealed that asylum seekers queue for up to three hours for medication—and some must queue four times a day. Antenatal care is inadequate and unsafe. Basic medical stocks are low and doctors’ requests for drugs are ignored.
Long delays in transferring patients to the mainland are leading to life-threatening risks.
The conditions offshore are worse. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recently declared that conditions on Manus Island violated the UN’s prohibition on torture.
But since the Christmas Island protest, around 40 single men have been transferred to Manus Island. A similar number of family groups have been transferred to Nauru.
It is the indefinite detention and uncertainty of their future processing that is driving the asylum seekers’ protests. Some people have already spent seven months in detention.
Yet the government says that processing will only start when they are sent offshore.
If Turkey or Jordan was using their military forces to drive back Syrian refugees, there would be an international outcry.
But driving back defenceless refugees is exactly what the Australian government is doing on the seas between Indonesia and Australia.