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Article
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Activism
Politics

‘We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity’: on hunger striking for refugees

I fled Iran to be safe from torture and jail. But in Australia I have suffered even more. We have become like the walking dead, like a machine. We have become physically and mentally ill. I have lost my hope. It is too difficult to live.

– ‘Martin’, the 33-year-old Iranian asylum seeker who has now been on hunger strike for over 80 days and is near death. His is the longest hunger strike in the history of Australia’s detention regime. He is wheelchair bound. He has lost 40per cent of his body weight. His organs are eating his body.

Desperate people seeking asylum are dying in our name. That we are not all up in arms is beyond troubling. If depriving myself of food is the only thing I can do, it’s a risk worth taking, I think.

A number of things happen when you inform people of your resolute and stubborn desire to deprive yourself of food for an extended period of time, particularly for a hunger strike protesting a political injustice on an as divisive as asylum seekers.

‘There’s no point.’

‘It won’t make a difference.’

‘All you’ll do is deprive yourself of food!’

Mostly they want you to know that you are crazy and that your actions will not change anything. In their minds, doing nothing is somehow the preferred option to this ongoing and critical humanitarian crisis.

It’s important to remember and remind ourselves, almost to the point of it being a mantra, that those who reside and suffer in facilities in Darwin, Manus Island, Nauru, Christmas Island and right across the country are all human beings, just like us. As one of those humans is my friend, I have firsthand confirmation of this. Asylum seekers are humans, just like us, and they deserve to live their lives with dignity.

After the previous government had released Mehdi* into the community following stints in various detention centres, we were worried that the Abbott government might find excuses to reject his application for asylum and put him back in detention. Despite countless threats and the ongoing psychological torture of threatening to do that, we never imagined they actually would.

When they took our friend from us in September 2014, they took him in the most callous of ways: as he dutifully and respectfully attended his routine appointment at the immigration department. He did not run or hide from them, but simply complied with their demands. From Villawood, he was flown to Wickham Point in Darwin. No explanation necessary. Even the lawyer was baffled and wrote, ‘This is such an unexpected and distressing development’.

But this is what our country does now – it disappears people.

 

Indefinite detention, a practice that contravenes international law, is one of two options presented to all asylum seekers. Mehdi has been in his dystopian nightmare in Darwin for the last five months, with no sign that he’ll ever be released. He relays stories of how case workers are telling Iranians who don’t speak English, who have no lawyers and no-one on the outside to help them, that they only have two options. They can either sign a form and be sent back to Iran or they can stay in the detention facility forever:

Case worker: ‘Those are your only two options.’

The translator relayed this to the asylum seekers.

Translator: ‘They said there’s a third option.’

Case worker: ‘No, there are only two options.’

Translator: ‘They said they can kill themselves.’

 

Only a week ago, Mehdi called me from Darwin to wish me a happy birthday.

‘I wish I could be there and take you out to dinner for your birthday,’ he said, his voice laced with his trademark smile. He asked what I was doing to celebrate, as though he was just down the road and not at the edge of the border in indefinite detention.

In a different phonecall, he begged me not to take up the hunger strike.

‘I don’t want you to suffer for us.’
He tried to convince me to wait another week for my body to recover from a throat infection. He wanted me to only do one day. He joked about whether this was just a ploy for me to try and lose weight. And then he said:

‘All you will think about is food.’

‘I miss my life in Australia.’

‘I am wasting my life here.’

There’s a photo set of Mehdi*, preparing to sky dive for the first time, the widest grin spread across his face, with the caption, ‘I’m still alive, lol’. When I close my eyes, those photos are what I see.

 

My hunger strike began quite simply as a show of solidarity, as a way of letting my friend know that we are with him and he is not alone. I wanted it to be about asylum seekers and refugees incarcerated. It wasn’t until I started and saw the direct action occurring, first at the Australian Open and then again on the rooftop of Tony Abbott’s Manly electorate office, that I saw the potential power inherent in this action, that it will have an impact, even if only small.

I am not encouraging all Australians to go on hunger strikes – I don’t think it’s the right tactic to take up. A hunger strike is a powerful act for people on the frontlines – a kind of empowering resistance for those living in extreme circumstances. It is a way of those people taking their lives back into their own hands.

But if we do not value asylum seekers as human beings in the first instance, if we overlook their humanity and opt for the bystander effect that this government is relying on as a strategy, then the lives of asylum seekers and refugees are deemed worthless – and they are left to deal not only with the reality of life in indefinite detention, but also with their protests going unnoticed.

My solidarity hunger strike was never intended to affect my life in a dramatic way. The plan was that I would go to work as per normal, walk there as normal, even go to a gig. Only, I would not eat for 72 of those hours.

I wasn’t aware of how not eating would affect my body and mind until I was in the midst of my strike. It rendered me physically weak: my limbs ached, my joints were stiff, my stomach would randomly cramp up with pain. Sometimes I felt a small, sharp pain in my chest.

My brain took a few seconds to kick into gear. There were moments where I felt sharp and lucid, and then it would fade. I mixed up words. I drifted out of conversations for a whole minute and couldn’t remember what we were talking about. I had to stop my 20-minute walk five minutes in and hail a cab because the blistering heat sapped me of any remaining energy.

 

I have long followed the Palestinian struggle, many of whom are also refugees. These are people who have to fight for their existence, who have been deprived of power again and again. For them, hunger strikes are the last resort, the one defiant act that no-one can take away.

Gandhi, the most famous of the long line of hunger strikers, called such tactics ‘satyagraha’ or ‘truth force’. He believed that nonviolence required more courage than violence. That it was not enough to aim to convert an opponent to your point-of-view. Rather, the objective was to mobilise those who feel powerless. Nonviolent resistance, he said, was ‘to activate the moral conscience of one’s own constituents such that they, inspired by your example, are moved to bring the necessary force to bear on the powerful.’

Another thinker I respect, Norman Finkelstein, writes that he does not believe such actions can be successful unless they are mass actions. ‘Individual actions are effective if the individual has a huge amount of moral authority and a huge following,’ he writes. ‘So, for example, when Gandhi went on a hunger strike he was not just representing himself, he was representing 450 million Indian people and the British were fully aware if Gandhi died on hunger strike the 450 million Indian people would erupt in massive violence.’

And yet, Finkelstein acknowledges that the most compelling evidence for ‘satyagraha’ was that it empowered the individual to look to him or herself, to the conscience, as the ultimate source of all salvation. Because it ensures that people do not delegate responsibility to one single messianic figure.

To shift public opinion on asylum seekers, we would have to escalate this protest. How? Perhaps people could do go without food for longer and make the protest more public. For instance, they could set up a rolling webcam where people could watch them go without food. In between, they could read the letters and thoughts of asylum seekers.

Or perhaps hunger strikers could occupy a space, outside detention centres in the road, in front of vans trying to deport those humans. More protesters could buy plane tickets to stop planes from deporting asylum seekers who fear for their lives.

When people say, ‘but what can I/you/we do? I just feel so powerless’, they are thinking only of their own limited impact. But what if our actions were amplified by the actions of other Australian citizens? What about the domino effect?

What more will it take to shock us, Julian Burnside recently asked – because if hunger strikes, lip sewing and suicide won’t shock us, what will? If we are not moved to compassion as the hunger strikers have said they are willing to die, yet will donate their organs to Australians, then what will sway us?

I don’t think traditional means of protest can cut through that level of conditioning. If we are going to see a change, the campaign needs to work quickly and effectively at striking a chord, and as many chords as possible. Actions that deviate from the norm, which highlight the human suffering of these human beings is what is needed.

And I hope all of these tactics will be part of a more public, militant campaign that could be the start of a tipping point.

With the response to my solidarity strike, I have seen the small ripple effect, and I want more of it. I want people to pledge to take at least one action for asylum seekers – whether it be small, like a supportive comment or sharing a relevant article, or bigger: letters written, vigils attended or other forms of protest we are yet to create.

And then, when it seems we’ve exhausted our options, I want us to start again and again, banging on walls until they break down. I want Australians standing in the middle of the street, making noise. I want the world to take notice, shame us and call for an international boycott. I want the government to cower in their boots. I want emergency meetings called. I want freedom for all those who are being wrongfully detained. I want the blood on the government’s hands to stain their record and I want the United Nations involved for these crimes against humanity.

And I want my friend back.

Letter from a Hazara Afghan Asylum seeker, Darwin, NORTH-I, Detention Centre, Australia, January 25, 2011

  1. We need help from Humanitarian nation, we are Human. We came here for peace and safety not being in the Cage.
  2. We are Human like you.
  3. 19 Months process not fair.
  4. We believe on God, on you. (On their Shirts written)
  5. Awaiting for your help. (On their Shirts written)
  6. Freedom, Freedom
  7. Will I be free one day. (On their Shirts written)

 

Warm and best wishes for you.

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Comments

  1. Thank you for the post, please keep us updated about your friend’s condition in Darwin. It is absolutely disturbing what is taking place inside detention centres.

    Future generations will hold us accountable to what is currently taking place.

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