Saturday, 6 August 2011

Boatpeople on hunger strike over deportation

Asylum seekers
Two asylum seekers garden while being watched by three guards on Christmas Island. Picture: Stephen Cooper Source: The Australian

ASYLUM-SEEKERS who have been told they will be deported to Malaysia began a hunger strike last night, according to a refugee advocate contacted by one of the group from Christmas Island.

Asylum Seekers Christmas Island director Michelle Dimasi said she received a phone call from an extremely distressed man inside the Bravo compound where 22 men, women, minors and young children are being held pending expulsion under the Malaysia Solution.

"He told me: 'We really need help. Our situation is really bad -- they're going to send us back to Malaysia,' " Ms Dimasi said.

"He then said: 'The women and the children are in a bad way -- people in here are going on hunger strike.' " Ms Dimasi said the phone then went dead, and she was extremely concerned for the mental health of the detainees.

The Immigration Department said last night it was investigating the claims.

And amid uproar about the government's decision to send children and unaccompanied minors to Malaysia, the Immigration Department has confirmed it will not carry out exhaustive age checks on the asylum-seekers who claim to be younger than 18 years old.

The men from the boat of 55 asylum-seekers were moved yesterday morning to the notorious White 1 compound inside the island's main detention centre, previously reserved for detainees accused of gang rape, rioting and stirring unrest.

Australian Federal Police plans to deport the men in groups of 15 on an Australian Antarctic Division airbus leased by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, The Weekend Australian has been told.

The potential removal of a small boy, families and unaccompanied minors from the asylum boat is even more contentious.

They are being held in the detention centre built by the Howard government after the Tampa crisis in 2001. The Immigration Department does not call it a detention centre any more.

It is now known as an alternative place of detention and therefore deemed suitable for children.

Yesterday, the department confirmed there were 18 minors on the boat that arrived on Thursday, not 19 as previously thought.

A department spokeswoman said one of the asylum-seekers who had claimed to be a minor had, on checking, told Immigration officials he was over 18.

The age of asylum-seekers claiming to be unaccompanied minors has been contentious since the surge in asylum boats that began in late 2008.

Unaccompanied minors have an extremely high success rate and not one has been forcibly removed since the surge in boats began in 2008.

The department does not use bone-density testing on Christmas Island to determine age but last year.

The department sent a taskforce to the island to investigate the ages of adolescent males claiming to be 17 or younger.

Refugee advocates said it would be unfair to assume asylum-seekers, particularly those from Afghanistan, had knowingly concealed their age.

Birth records were not kept in many parts of Afghanistan and the Hazara people, in particular, rarely knew the date they were born.

The department said it did not intend to carry out thorough age checks.

"We are not doing full age determination analysis which we would for situations where we are processing a visa in Australia, because these particular asylum-seekers will be processed in Malaysia," the department spokeswoman said.

Refugee advocates were also concerned yesterday that the group of asylum-seekers could suffer religious persecution in Malaysia.

Most of those in the group comprising Afghans and Pakistanis were Shia Muslims and could experience discrimination in a country that was Sunni, they said.

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