By Hanna King
For decades, Australia’s notoriously strict immigration policy has prevented asylum seekers from residing on the mainland of the continent. From 2001 to 2008, Nauru, the smallest sovereign island nation in the world, supported itself economically by hosting an Australian detention center in exchange for medical and financial support. During that time period, the detention center hosted between 200 and 1200 refugees, mainly ethnically Hazara Afghanis. Hazara are a Shi’a sect of Muslims often persecuted by the Sunni majority in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On December 10, 2003, the United Nations’ annual World Human Rights Day, eight Afghani and one Pakistani asylum seekers began a hunger strike, to highlight their plight. Four of the protesters physically sewed their mouths shut, to symbolize their silence and struggle, and to gain attention. Their protest began out of concern for a detainee who had attempted suicide the week before. As their strike began, Hassan Ghulam, president of the Hazara Ethnic Society of Australia, began to inform the public about the plight of Hazara held on Nauru, giving newspaper interviews on behalf of the refugees. At that point, the Australian government refused to acknowledge the hunger strike, or comment upon it.
By December 17, 24 asylum seekers were engaged in a hunger strike. As Australian Immigration Minister, Amanda Vadstone continued to deny the existence of a hunger strike, human rights lawyers from A Just Australia and Rural Australians for Refugees filed lawsuits in Australian courts on behalf of the refugees, with little success. Two days later, 35 asylum seekers were involved, and, up to nine days into their strike, 15 men had been hospitalized. At this point, the hunger strike began to gain Western news attention, and was reported on in The Guardian, and the BBC News. By December 24, 2003, the strike had grown to more than 40 detainees, and 18 had been hospitalized. That day, as a result of increased international attention, the United Nations’ refugee body, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, announced its plan to review the international refugee status of the Afghani Hazara. However, the refugee’s asylum had originally been denied by Australia itself, not the United Nations, making the review symbolic at best.
At this point, medical facilities on Nauru began to state that they were running out of medical resources for the entire island while attempting to care for the hunger strikers. They issued a formal request to the Australian Medical Association (AMA) to send a team of doctors to bring resources, care, and oversight to the refugee camps. The AMA agreed, and began preparations to send a team of six physicians. In response to this news, the hunger strikers suspended their strike on January 8, 2004. However, on January 23, it became clear that the Australian government was preventing the AMA from visiting Nauru, threatening to revoke national aid if doctors were allowed to inspect the conditions. Many of the hunger strikers remained unable to stand, walk, or digest solids as a result of their prolonged fast. Despite pleas, it is unclear that they ever received the necessary medical attention.
A building series of hunger strikes from diverse groups of refugees seeking asylum in Australia continued between 2004 and 2008. The Nauruan detainment camp was closed in 2008. Refugees continue to struggle for entrance to Australia, and compensation for the neglect they experienced while detained.
- admin. “Nauru Hunger Strike Ends.” Asian Tribune 2004 : n. pag. Print.
- “Australia Aloof to Nauru Protest.” BBC 17 Dec 2003 : n. pag. Print.
- “Australia Shifts on Nauru Protest.” BBC 19 Dec 2003 : n. pag. Print.
- Fickling, David. “14 Hunger Strikers in Hospital.” The Guardian 19 Dec 2003 : n. pag. Print.
- Harrison, Red. “Nauru Hunger Strikers ‘Neglected’.” BBC 2004 : n. pag. Print.
- Head, Mike. “Desperation Fuels Hunger Strikes in Australian Refugee Camps.” World Socialist Web Site 19 Dec 2003 : n. pag. Print.
- Mercer, Phil. “Nauru Hunger Strike Protest Grows.” BBC News : n. pag. Print.
- “Nauru Hunger Strike Suspended.” Melting Pot Europa 2004 : n. pag. Print.
- “Nauru Refugees Sew Lips Together.” The Age 10 Dec 2003 : n. pag. Print.
- Skeers, Jake. “Australian government stops doctors visiting Nauru detention camp.” World Wide Socialist Web Site 2004 : n. pag. Print.
- Stephen, Sarah. “Nauru Hunger Strike Temporarily Suspended.” Green Left Weekly 2004 : n. pag. Print.
- “UN to Review Nauru Asylum Rulings.” BBC 19 Dec 2003 : n. pag. Print.
The Global Nonviolent Action Database
This case study comes from The Global Nonviolent Action Database, a project of Swarthmore College, including the Peace and Conflict Studies Program, the Peace Collection, and the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility.
- Asylum seekers and refugees
- Australia-Immigration detention
- Direct action - Non violent NVDA
- Hazaras (Afghan people)
- Hunger strikes
- Movements_Campaigns - Asylum seekers_Refugees