Nauru Detainees ‘Walking Zombies’

Nauru detainees 'walking zombies'

Jewel Topsfield
The Age (Melbourne)
September 4, 2007 – 10:24AM

More than 50 Sri Lankan detainees at Nauru have entered their fourth day of a hunger strike.

The Federal Government has refused to set a deadline for when Sri Lankans detained on Nauru will have their asylum claims decided, despite more than 50 entering their fourth day of hunger strikes today to protest the delays.

And the asylum seekers – who claim they have been reduced to “walking zombies” – could face a longer wait, with the Government seeking advice on whether immigration processing can continue during the caretaker period once the election has been called.

The Opposition yesterday vowed a Labor Government would immediately close the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

Opposition Immigration Minister Tony Burke told The Age asylum seekers would be transferred to Christmas Island, which is on Australian territory, where a $396 million detention centre is being built.

The Sri Lankan asylum seekers last week wrote to Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews vowing to go on a hunger strike until their cases were decided.

“We are frustrated that despite the lapse of six months and despite the existence of many countries that offer asylum to political refugees, no final decision has been taken about 83 of us,” the letter said. “Eating three meals a day does not mean living.”

Asylum seekers detained on the mainland must have their claims processed within 90 days.

But a spokeswoman for Mr Andrews said it was impossible to set a time frame for when the asylum seekers on Nauru would be processed, with some cases involving complicated identity checks.

“We don't want them to continue the hunger strike – we can't expedite the process any quicker,” the spokeswoman said.

“We don't want people not eating when we don't have a definitive time frame their cases can be resolved by.”

Refugee advocate Susan Metcalfe, who has spent the last month on Nauru, said she had urged the men to reconsider the hunger strike.

“Some of the men involved have health problems, and at least one to two are diabetic,” she said.

“They could do irreparable damage to their bodies and we could see disastrous consequences.”

Ms Metcalfe said the men's anxiety and frustration had been exacerbated by the uncertainty of the election outcome and whether processing would be suspended during the caretaker period.

The men have been banned from leaving the immigration processing centre during the day following the alleged rape and indecent assault of a local Nauruan woman by six of the Sri Lankan asylum-seekers.

Mr Burke said that under a Labor Government any detainees under investigation by a Nauruan authorities would remain on the island until the matter was concluded.

A source told The Age the hunger strike was likely to delay the asylum seekers cases being decided until well after the election.

“I've never known this Government, particularly pre-election, to be prepared to bow to pressure from young Sri Lankans on a hunger strike.”