Immigration Detainees on Hunger Strike Over Brutality and Deplorable Conditions

On Wednesday, over 350 detainees at Perth’s Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre entered the tenth day of their hunger strike over conditions at the facility. Key grievances are guard brutality, the arbitrary nature punishment and government powers to detain indefinitely.

And as of Monday, detainees across the country joined them. Those in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre and Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation began to hunger strike, while those at Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) resumed their earlier strike.

Among those who are going without food are over one hundred New Zealanders, who, until recently, made up the largest cohort of people in onshore immigration detention, following changes to the laws around deporting noncitizens on character grounds that were made at the end of 2014.

Villawood detainees have issued a list of human rights concerns to the immigration department, which include being placed in centres located away from their families, detaining individuals with no pending criminal or immigration matters and the use of isolation and restraints by guards.

The Australian Border Force (ABF) said in a statement on Monday that “there is no mass hunger strike within the Australian immigration detention network, or at any immigration centres”. And it “strongly” refutes claims that the conditions in the facilities “are inhumane or brutal”.

Mass hunger strike continues

Refugee Action Coalition spokesperson Ian Rintoul said some hunger strikers from Yongah Hill were taken to the hospital on Monday. “People are getting a bit tired and weak. But, they’re hanging in there for now,” he explained. “It’s always difficult: how long people can sustain it.”

The long-term refugee rights advocate estimated that there are around 1,000 detainees involved in the hunger striking at facilities across the nation. And its deplorable living conditions, the increasing militarisation of centres and the overriding power of the minister that’s behind the strikes.

Some of the detainees have been kept inside these onshore detention facilities for up to eight years. However, numbers have recently swelled due to the 501ers, who are resident noncitizens who’ve fallen short of the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison government’s draconian deportation program.

For now, Mr Rintoul continued, the government is “just trying to wait it out”. He added that they’ve been putting out statements denying the hunger strikes, as well as assaults perpetrated by guards. But, in regard to an initial strike at MITA, the government has started to make some concessions.

Shifting the problem

Around 200 detainees at MITA North – the new high security compound at the Broadmeadow’s immigration facility – began a hunger strike on 8 January, in response to the harsh conditions there, which are even worse than transferees from Maribyrnong had previously been subjected to.

The government shut down the high security Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre at the beginning of the month. This followed the closure of the notorious Christmas Island facility in October last year. And there are also plans to shut Blaxland compound at Villawood mid-year.

However, Mr Rintoul denounced these closures as sleight-of-hand, as the government has simply “opened high security compounds at MITA and Yongah Hill, which are now being used very similarly to the way Christmas Island was used”.

Immigration centre brutality

The hunger strike at MITA North commenced at the same time that footage emerged from MITA South compound that showed a detainee being set upon by five Serco guards and forcibly removed from the mess hall, after he allegedly asked for some garlic sauce to go with his meal.

Following the incident, the ABF refuted “claims that a detainee at MITA was physically restrained for asking a question about his meal”. It further asserted that reasonable force was used during the incident in accordance with guidelines and procedures.

The MITA detainees suspended their initial hunger strike after the ABF met one of their demands, which was to supply them with televisions in their rooms. And on Tuesday, Mr Rintoul told Sydney Criminal Lawyers that these detainees are now waiting for further demands to be met.

Shirking responsibility

In December 2014, the Coalition government amended section 501 of the Migration Act 1958, so a noncitizen is now automatically deported for any number of sentences amounting to 12 months or more, rather than the previous 24 months.

The result has been that a large number of long-term Australian residents have had their visas revoked for multiple petty crimes. And while Rintoul states that this was a policy aimed at refugees for the most part, it has heavily affected the New Zealander population in this country.

Mr Rintoul sees this as a form of double punishment. “It’s been a deliberate move by the government to change the Migration Act, so that they’ve got a whole other avenue of punitive measures that they can take against people who are permanent residents.”

The Migration Act was further amended so that under section 501 a noncitizen can also be deported without a conviction if the minister reasonably suspects they’re associated with crime, while section 116 now allows a noncitizen to be turfed out of the country if they pose a risk to “good order”.

Deporting Kiwis in droves

The latest Department of Home Affairs immigration detention figures are from 30 November last year. They outline that 1,327 individuals were in mainland detention: 405 were 501ers, 427 people were being detained for “illegal maritime arrival” and 456 were inside for other reasons.

At that time, the greatest number of people being held in onshore detention facilities were Iranians, numbering 168 detainees. And this was closely followed by New Zealanders, totalling 154 people in detention.

Indeed, between June 2016 and September last year, Kiwis in Australia made up the largest group of people being held in onshore immigration detention centres, whereas prior to the character ground amendments, they even didn’t rate as a separate group.

According to the Home Affairs Department, since the amendments to the Migration Act were made, visa cancellations on character grounds have increased by over 1,400 percent. Over the year 2017-18, 907 people were deported on these grounds, with 50 percent – or 453 individuals – being Kiwis.

“The hunger strike is big news in New Zealand,” Mr Rintoul said, as Kiwis are one of the largest groups involved. And he added that New Zealanders are not the only people that the new deportation rules are affecting.

“There’s a Jordanian guy, who’s been here forty years. All his family are here. He’s got no connection with Jordan. And they’re talking about trying to deport him, even though everything is here,” he concluded.

The above image is of women in the Lima compound at Villawood on Monday, as they began the hunger strike.

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About Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on civil rights, drug law reform, gender and Indigenous issues. Along with Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he writes for VICE and is the former news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.


  1. Abby McCaffrey

    There is a legal obligation in accordance with Federal Law and International obligations that Federal Government are ensuring that the Australian immgration Department’s Legislative objectives, that include the protection of the Australian community, and the public interest criteria of the children, spouse’s, and other family members of detainees, who are Australian citizens, and the safety and security and fundermental needs of the non-citizen, that is being detained in an Australian Immigration Detention are being maintained and meet accordingly.

    We appreciate the Minister’s time to consider the following requests:
    Kindly consider that we will be forced to continue our protest until our requests are meet by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship, in a reasonable and ethical manor:
    Please Set A Time Frame, for the Department to make a decision on
    Character Assessment’s. The department should provide all detainees with the decision within 3 months. it’s a ‘YES or a NO’. This includes all the decision’s that the National Character Consideration Center, (NCCC) and Visa Application Character Consideration Unit, (VACCU), of the Immigration department, is responsible for making, regarding the revocation of visa cancellation and also for visa applicant’s who are currently inside Immigration Detention. We request that for a visa applicant the Character Assessment is to be made from the start of the visa application to prevent unnecessary detention of the visa applicant after they have been determined to meet the criteria for the visa applied for. The Character assessment is requiring to be made in accordance with the decision making criteria and guidelines set out in the Ministerial Direction 65, and Section 501 of the Migration Act. These guidelines stipulate the mandatory visa cancellation is 12 months imprisonment. Non-citizens who do not meet the legislative criteria should not have their visa cancelled, under section 501 of the Act. There have been cases where the discretion that is currently afforded to decision makers when assessing Character, for the purpose of the Act, is not being applied in the proper circumstances, this causes the non-citizen and their Australian family to suffer undue hardship. The purpose of the Migration Act is not cause unnecessary hardship to non-citizen’s or their families in the community, this will incite a public outcry from the Australian community.
    New Zealand permanent residents who reside permanently in Australia, who are now seen to be on a Special Category TY444 (temporary) visa in Australia, should be given the right to a fair hearing as enshrined in the Constitutional Act that applies to every law in the Commonwealth of Australia. For New Zealander’s who have lived in
    Australia for 10 years or more, they should be given the consideration that they are in fact absorbed citizens of Australia. The Special Category visa that replaced the New Zealander’s right to permanent residency in Australia, and introduced the temporary visa, TY444, has harshly punished many Australian families in the community, by separating them from the family member who has been caught in Australia’s current immigration detention and deportation system. The visa cancellation is often made for less than the criteria of the mandatory visa cancellation. This issue in-particularly requires the following amendment at the earliest opportunity: New Zealander’s who permanently reside in Australia, and who have committed a serious offence, that meets the mandatory visa cancellation decision making criteria and guidelines, are to be served with a Notice of intention to cancel their visa. There are too many New Zealander’s who are being deported for very minor offences and this is very unreasonable and unfair to other family members especially children in the Australian community. Please allow the New Zealand non-citizen to have the right to respond to the Notice od Visa
    Cancellation, and if necessary, to have their case process through Australia’s Administrative legal system, prior to the visa being cancelled and forfeiting their right to remain in the community with their family. Special consideration should be given to the historic relationship that Australia and New Zealand has shared throughout the years, and also the percentage of New
    Zealander’s who are living in Australia, and the high percentage of those New
    Zealander’s, who are/were employed and positively contributing to the Australian economy. The right to have their case heard whilst they are living in the community, should only be exempt if they offend in the community during the process of the Visa Cancellation being determined.
    Please ensure that detainees who are successful at their Judicial review are released from Immigration detention promptly, without further delay. 5 working days should be a time limit to how long the department can take to finalize a persons visa after they are lawfully determined to be successful for the grant of their visa through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal or when ordered by the Federal Court of Australia. Please stop the limbo and unnecessary detention of those detainees who have no criminal or Migration matters pending.
    If a person is not a dangerous violent criminal or a terrorist threat they should not be forced to incarcerated inside Immigration Detention
    for more than 2 years. Everybody deserves a chance to live in the community. The Department of Immigration should be fair to people who have close ties and a strong bond to the Australian community. No person should be kept in Immigration Detention for more than two years, unless they are facing Criminal Charges, or are considered to be a significant threat to the community, for serious repeat offending that includes; Murder, Sexual Assault, Pedophiles, Terrorist’s. It is illogical and unreasonable and there is no justification for keeping low risk offender’s in high security detention for years and years, this in ARBITRARY DETENTION of non-citizen’s and this scenario of prolonged detention is contrary to the Law’s that govern Australia, including Australia’s international obligations.
    A non-citizen who has signed to voluntarily depart Australia should be on a flight to depart Australia within 1 week. The lengthily delays that prevent a person from returning to their country of origin, or voluntarily departing Australia, is clearly a conflict of ethical reasoning and the current perception held by the Department’s Detention management, this ‘perception’ is strongly influenced by the monetary bonus’s that the center management are rewarded with for the length of a detainee inside Immigration Detention and for the non-citizen getting deported from inside Immigration detention. This monetary bonus scheme is undermining the integrity of the department and encouraging inappropriate behaviour by the department case worker’s that negatively influences the detainees immigration case.
    Thank you, for your understanding and co-operation with the important issues raised. We hope that these request’s are fulfilled as a matter of urgency so to prevent undue hardship of detainees and their Australian families, or any major disruption to the Australian Community, from the community out cry for ethical management implemented into Australia’s Immigration Detention center’s.
    Yours faithfully,
    From, All the Detainees in Australia’s Immigration Detention Center’s, and their Australian families, relatives, friends, and work colleagues in the Australian community.

  2. Hugh Macgregor

    This is the extreme right wing of the Liberal Party at work rubbing their hands together in glee just as Hitlers Black Shirts did in the 1930s. Why do we not learn from history? This is the thin edge of the wedge that is the enemy of humanity. It belongs nowhere not even in the last century let alone this 21st century.

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