As of Saturday more than 60 'boat people' refugees have gone on hunger strike in Australia in response to the possibility of their being transferred to a detention centre on the Pacific island state of Nauru. The striking group includes unaccompanied children and there are reports of similar protests in in Darwin.
Refugee activists in Sydney have been told by inmates of the Christmas Island detention centre that a group of refugees were picked up by the Australian Navy on the 16th of August and have been held on the Australian territory of Christmas Island. In the last week the refugees were informed that they would be transferred to Nauru where the status would be determined by Australian immigration officials. It is the threat of being transferred out of Australian territory to a detention centre that has been linked with allegations of ill treatment of inmates that has provoked the refugee protest.
There is a perception in Australia that there has been a large increase recently in the numbers of refugees arriving from Asia by boat. The numbers vary greatly over the last few years. However the number up until July of this year would suggest that 2012 will see an unusually high number of 'boat people' attempting to get to Australia.
This has led to demands from opposition leader Tony Abbot for drastic actions to be taken. Julia Gillard's Labour Government have bowed to the pressure from the right and set about reviving the 'Pacific solution' of the John Howard administration.
The 'Pacific Solution' dates back to the early 2000s and saw refugees being detained off shore in the Pacific island micro state of Nauru while their applications for refugee status were processed by the Australian immigration authorities. It was implemented by the Government of John Howard just as worldwide refugee numbers began to decline, having peaked in 2001.
The policy of offshore detention was criticised as breaching Australia’s obligations under the UN Convention on Refugees. There was also concern about the effect it would have on relations between Australia and Nauru with some comparing it to neocolonialism. As the Australian's tried to pass the refugee issue onto to other countries created diplomatic tensions with Norway and New Zealand.
The refugees objected to the uncertainty that their detention left them with, some of whom spent up to five years on the islands and reports of many inmates suffering from mental illnesses as a result of their detention.
In 2007 the newly elected Labour Government fulfilled its campaign pledge to close down the offshore detention centre and transferred the remaining inmates to Australia. During the course the policy almost two thirds of the inmates were granted refugee status in Australia with the remainder being granted refugee status in other countries.
Earlier this month the Gillard Government announced plans to restart the 'Pacific solution' which has led to the outbreak of hunger strikes amongst inmates of detention centre in Christmas Island and Darwin.
Whilst there has been an increase in 'boat people' this year the numbers are miniscule in comparison to immigrants who have over stayed their visas. These immigrants are usually from the first world and do not generate the political hysteria that the refugees do. The Australian Government has pandered to the right wing and imposed a cruel and unusual ordeal on people who have already endured horrific experiences just to get to safety.
The 'Pacific solution' has proven itself in its past implementation to be a facile and superficial attempt to deal with a relatively small number of refugees attempting to enter Australia. This policy was a failure for the Government of John Howard and it is difficult to see how it will succeed this time.
The best hope of saving Australia from another attempt at a failed policy lies with children and men in Christmas Island and Darwin willing to starve themselves until the Government in Canberra relents and decide to do the right thing.