SYDNEY : Seven asylum-seekers sewed their lips shut Sunday as part of a mass hunger strike protest involving hundreds of detainees in an Australian immigration detention centre, activists said.
Refugee activists said seven Iranian men had stitched their lips to protest their detention on Australia’s remote Christmas Island for almost a year under punitive policies aimed at deterring people-smuggling voyages.
Almost 400 asylum-seekers at the Christmas Island compound, about 2,600 kilometres from the west coast capital Perth, were refusing food, Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition said. The protest as part of a demonstration against the death of Iranian asylum-seeker Reza Barati.
“Hundreds are into their fourth day of hunger strike as the anger and frustration grows,” said Rintoul. “Seven Iranians in Gold and Green compound have also stitched their lips.”
Barati was killed in wild riots at an Australian refugee camp on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island in February, which also left 69 others injured.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said the situation on Christmas Island was “under control”, adding that “it is not uncommon for peaceful protests to occur in detention facilities”.
He refused to confirm or comment on the lip-stitching claims.
“It is not helpful for refugee activists, I think, to dramatise these events and seek to whip them up in the public mind,” he said.
“Because frankly, that is the purpose of these protests, to do just that,” the minister told reporters.
“The purpose of engaging in such activity is to gain media attention and... where there are those sorts of allegations of people’s behaviour I am not about to encourage others to engage in it either by giving it publicity.”
An official Australian review released on Monday found Barati was beaten to death in an assault led by a Salvation Army worker at the centre. This has been denied by PNG police, who have described the Australian probe as “stink(ing) of a major cover-up”.
Rintoul said the protesters wanted the media and United Nations inspectors to be allowed inside the Christmas Island facility to see how conditions were “deteriorating badly” among detainees.
“Their mental health is already declining, yet they face many more months, and perhaps years, in detention,” he said.
Asylum-seekers who arrive in Australia on people-smuggling boats face a “no advantage” offshore detention policy, designed as a deterrent.
The policy places no limits on the length of time they can be locked up on Christmas Island, PNG or the far-flung Pacific outpost of Nauru.