Australians fast over 2004 Xmas in empathy with detainees

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Sunday, December 26, 2004

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — Members of the Australian public, as well as celebrities and politicians have been fasting in recent weeks in empathy with a large contingent of Iranian asylum seekers. Meanwhile, the Iranian men are understood to be receiving medical treatment, some having broken their fast after more than two weeks of starvation.

Two Melburnians, Juliana Qian and Emily Smith, held a 24-hour fast, including a 12-hour public vigil at the city's central Flinders Street Station on Christmas Day. Seventeen-year-old Ms Qian said, "I want to show my support to the detainees, and to draw attention to their situation. Many Iranians have been detained in Australia for four or five years. There is much evidence to suggest these detainees would be persecuted if deported to Iran."

Senator Andrew Bartlett, of the Australian Democrats Party, fasted for five days earlier in the week, hoping to draw attention to the plight of asylum seekers in the nation's controversial immigration system, which is highly intolerant of what it calls "unauthorised" arrivals. Artist and convenor of Spare Rooms for Refugees, Kate Durham, comedian Corrine Grant, actor and vice-president of Actors for Refugees, Diana Greentree, writer Arnold Zable, and musician Kavisha Mazzella have also fasted. Other Australians continue fasting in a rolling programme of three days each, with the last of these planned to end on New Year's Eve with a vigil outside St Stephen's Cathedral in Brisbane.

Most of the hunger striking detainees have been in high security detention for over four years, with no assigned date for release or repatriation. As many as 27 were starving themselves during this particular episode, and some had sewed their lips. Three others had staged a rooftop protest.

A letter from the hunger striking detainees explains their reasons for fasting, and for some having broken fast. "We ... listened to their plea for us to end the hunger strike and have therefore decided to start eating again on Christmas Day as a sign of our good will and friendship.

"It saddens us that you have chosen to ignore until now all the information about us Arab-Iranians which we and our friends have provided to you, your Minister and her Department. We have demonstrated that our Arab minority suffers disadvantages and persecution in Iran and that, no matter what our individual situation, we all had to flee home because we were striving for more freedom and justice for our people. We are real and genuine refugees.

"It is unconscionable that we are not allowed to submit this information or that DIMIA and the Australian courts should not be permitted to consider it, contrary to other civilized countries. How can we prove our case when the authorities will not acknowledge the independent information we have provided?"

Australia's Department of Immigration Multiculturalism and Indigenous Affairs is notorious for ignoring information provided in support of detainees, while upholding that similarly sourced information proves the detainees claims of asylum are ungrounded. One such case is the Bakhtyari family, being deported over Christmas. Verified documents indicating an Afghan origin for the family are disputed by the Department, while apparently forged documents are held by the department as sufficient to show that the family are natives of Pakistan, hence their current, and ongoing 'repatriation' to that country.

The Department has for a number of years ignored recommendations by the Australian Government's own Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to improve processing conditions for asylum seekers, particularly with respect to the issue of children in detention. Independent organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also have repeatedly condemned the Australian system.

Politicians in the Australian Federal Government express confidence in this system, such as Alexander Downer, Foreign Minister, on the Bakhtiyaris: "If you're found not to be a refugee and you've been falsely claiming to be a refugee you should go back home and they should go back to Pakistan where they came from."