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Fixing Australia

Australia is broken. Democracy has holes in it, cracks in it, and it needs fixing. Since the 2004 Federal election we know that our government is not going to fix it. I think we need to do that fixing, and this blog is a start of getting some ideas together.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Hungerstrike in the shadow of Bakhtiari case

Launceston vigil in progressNarrogin, Mon 20 Dec 18:30 - The hungerstrike at the Baxter detention centre is still on. Fifteen men are still part of the team, even while the attention of all of Australia focuses on the Bakhtiari family. My advice is, don't stop what you're doing, what you're planning and what you stand for, because the leopard hasn't changed its spots, and there is no prospect of the beast soon changing them. The question is, who will win the tug-o-war, the lawyers who desparately want to file papers that show that the government does not just have egg on its face, but that it's been lying to all of us in Australia about the Bakhtiari's nationality, as well as having deliberately orchestrated a campaign of vilification of Ali Bakhtiari, who is now a broken man who barely talks - and his entire family?

Vanstone, who can expect some visitors at her Adelaide office at 81 Flinders Street on Wednesday (see below) liberally spent your tax dollars today running her spin machine, telling Australia that hungerstrikes such as the fast by Andrew Bartlett encourages detainees, so Senator, you know you're a bad boy now: stop it, and she was assisted by the foreign minister Alex Downer, who thought it helpful to tell the Bakhtiari family that they're also bad in the headline "Bakhtiyaris 'making fools' of Australians".

Of course, Vanstone was pretty desparate, the headlines and the editorial in The Advertiser this morning didn't do her any favours. One of the Tiser's reporters shared the mood in the office with me yesterday: "...we're all depressed, what are we going to do? All of us have worked with the Bakhtiari kids on stories, We feel so powerless..." But, Vanstone's desperate bid came whilst the editors at The Age were working to put the next paper together, only to reveal that Vanstone has not aas yet read the case file on the Bakhtiari family.... I wonder what we pay our people's representatives for.

And, lo and behold, Laurie Ferguson went to Baxter today! Don't hold your breath, I thought when I heard it. I supplied reporters with some questions as soon as I heard, but to no avail, I'm afraid. All he did was reported in The Australian, a "me too" statement about the Bakhtiari family, and many of the members in the ALP would have cringed when they read the headline: "Labor backs Bakhtiyari verdict":

"Labor's immigration spokesman Laurie Ferguson yesterday joined the Howard Government in dismissing the Bakhtiyari family's plight, declaring the asylum-seekers' story lacked "credibility" and they should leave Australia. Adopting the stance of Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone, Mr Ferguson said the family had had a "reasonable" go and should leave voluntarily.

The phases of a hunger strike

The first week

• fasting generally well supported, as long as water intake is sufficient
• hunger pangs and stomach cramps disappear after the 2nd - 3rd day

After 15 - 18 days

• the hunger striker suffers from dizziness and "feeling faint"
• severe ataxia (inability to coordinate voluntary muscle movements)
• standing up may become difficult to impossible
• bradycardia (slowing of heartbeat)
• orthostatic hypotension (low blood pressure when standing up, often with faintness, dizziness, and vision problems)
• "lightheadedness" or inversely "mental sluggishness"
• sensation of cold
• general sensation of weakness
• fits of hiccoughs
• loss of the sensation of thirst

At the end of the first month, symptoms may be severe enough to warrant hospitalisation. Hydration needs to be particularly monitored. Too much supplement of NaCl (Sodium) may lead to hypokalemia (low level of potassium in blood).

Between 35 - 42 days

• troubles of ocular mobility (eye movements) due to progressive paralysis of the oculo-motor muscles:

• ==> uncontrollable nystagmus (rapid, involuntary, oscillatory motion of the eyeball)
• ==> diplopia (double vision)
• ==> extremely unpleasant sensations of vertigo
• ==> incoercible vomiting
• ==> extremely difficult to swallow water
• ==> converging strabismus (inability to focus :: cannot attain binocular vision)

This has been described as the most unpleasant phase by those who have survived prolonged fasting, and is the phase most dreaded by potential hunger strikers.

One week after the ocular phase

• once paralysis of the oculo-motor muscles is total ==> nystagmus ceases and with it all associated problems (vertigo, vomiting...)

From ~ 42 days onward

• progressive asthenia (physical weakening)
• torpitude (exist in a sleeping state)
• increasiningly confused state
• concentration becomes difficult or impossible
• somnolent state (in sleep state)
• anosognosia (ignorance of the presence of disease, especially of paralysis)
• indifference to surroundings
• incoherence

a PDF documentDownload this document from its original location at The World Medical Association website at

Refugee advocates welcome Ferguson's Baxter visit

Project SafeCom Inc.
Media Release
Sunday December 19 2004 11:00am WST
For Immediate Release
No Embargoes

"Refugee lobby and advocacy group Project SafeCom today welcomes ALP's Laurie Ferguson's planned visit for tomorrow to the Baxter detention centre," spokesman Jack H Smit said today.

"The recent ALP appointee to the Shadow Immigration portfolio, who expressed concern according to media reports this week about the possibility that the Bakhtiary family could be forcibly deported from Australia, is reported to plan a visit to the detention centre on Monday."

"We hope that Mr Ferguson now will also ask himself the question whether the language and nationality assessment of the Bakhtiary family was conducted by Malyar and Sayar Dehsabzi of Ethnic Interpreters & Translators, who operate from within Mr Ferguson's electorate."

"Recently the Australian Financial Review lifted the lid on the conduct of this company, stating the operators Malyar and Sayar Dehsabzi had not only links to groups supporting the Taliban and Al Quaeda, but that they are also members of ethnic groupings, well-known as arch-enemies of the Afghan Hazara minority group - to which the uncle of the Bakhtiary children, Mr Mahzer Ali belonged, the man who threw himself on razor wire at the Woomera detention centre in 2001."

Recently Sarah Stephen of Green Left Weekly reported (GLW, Dec 1 2004): "Following Mahzer Ali's forcible deportation from Australia in July 2003, he obtained documents proving that Roqia Bakhtiyari was from a village in the Jaghoori district of Ghazni and that all her children were born in Afghanistan. Her identity was confirmed by the residents and the statement signed by the district governor," and Ms Stephen gave "a clear summation of what has amounted to a Trial by Media, assisted and encouraged by former Immigration minister Philip Ruddock", Mr Smit stated.

"The children claim they're Hazaras from Afghanistan. The family claims they're from Afghanistan. Refugee advocates claim that it's overwhelmingly evident they're from Afghanistan. Isn't it time that DIMIA and the government come clean on what exactly happened? Hasn't the family suffered enough?"

"We wish Mr Ferguson well for his visit. Although he cannot undo the damage done to the family by the former immigration minister, continued through to the current minister and her department, he can, and surely would want to, uncover fraudulent nationality and language assessments, and serious hostility against those who come here to seek protection, even more so if it takes place in his own electorate."

Action: Darwin NT

Protest - Monday January 20th, 4-5pm
(Last Friday's protest cancelled as storm strikes Darwin)
Immigration Department Offices
40 Cavenagh St, City, Darwin


Refugee action group considers hunger strikes

Monday, December 20, 2004. 8:03pm (AEDT)

The Northern Territory Refugee Action Network says it is considering joining hunger strikes in protest against conditions inside the Baxter immigration detention centre.

Around 20 people protested outside the Commonwealth's Immigration Department in Darwin this afternoon to put pressure on the Federal Government to abolish its mandatory detention policy.

The network's Kathy Newnam says it will take further action to highlight the plight of refugees in detention centres across Australia.

"We certainly would call on the Martin Government to support what we're calling for here today and to speak out very actively in the end to mandatory detention, which is certainly something they haven't done to date," she said.

Ms Newnam says the call to abolish mandatory detention nationally is widely supported in the Territory.

"I think anyone who really understands and knows what's happening inside these detention centres and understands the human impact of this policy is in support of this message that we're saying here today," she said.

Let the Bakhtiyari Family Stay | Free the Baxter Asylum Seekers

12:30pm Wednesday 22 December
313 Adelaide St, Brisbane


Senator Andrew Bartlett
, Australian Democrats
Ian Rintoul, Refugee Action Collective
Iranian Association of Refugees representative
Church representative

The hunger strike by Iranian refugees at the Baxter Immigration Detention Centre will soon be in its third week (read the statement below). And while most in the community are preoccupied with Christmas, the Minister for Immigration i s making preparations to deport one of most well know families in detention, the Bakhtiyaris.

Help put the spotlight on the Government's treatment of refugees. Come to the solidarity protest. Phone Greg on 0409 877 528 for more details.


As Christmas looms close, and the hunger strike by refugees in the Baxter detention centre enters its second week we need to ask ourselves what kind of country Australia has become?

The Refugee Action Collective is calling on the government to Free the Baxter Refugees.

The hunger strike by 22 Iranian asylum seekers at the Baxter detention centre has entered its second week. The refugees face persecution if forcibly returned to Iran. Some have been previously jailed and tortured by the regime. Many of the refugees have converted to Christianity, a crime punishable by execution in Iran.

The government is insisting on deporting them. Within days of the October Federal Election the government deported an Iranian Christian back to Tehran. They guaranteed his persecution by refusing to allow him to remove his Baptism Certificate from his luggage.

The Iranian asylum seekers began the hunger strike to raise public awareness about their plight.

Greens Senator Kerry Nettle said "The fact is that these asyl um seekers have been driven into dangerous desperation by their long harsh detention and the threat of deportation to face persecution in Iran."

"When innocent men are willing to die in these detention camps then it should be obvious to all that the mandatory detention regime is cruel and inhumane policy which must be abolished."

Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett said "Those asylum seekers on hunger strike have been locked up for years and they feel they have no other options left. It is important for them to know that many people in the Australian community support them in their struggle for justice."

Amnesty International states that there are over 100 Iranian detainees who have spent more than 3 years in detention. The ongoing and indefinite detention of asylum seekers is an abuse of human rights and breaches Australia's international obligations.

There have been numerous human rights violations recorded in Iran and prisoners of conscience run the risk of torture and/or ill treatment.

Amnesty International is calling on the Australian Government to urgently:

• ensure that the health of the hunger strikers is being cared for, including affording appropriate medical attention and other assistance as is requested by the men;

• provide alternatives to the long term detention of asylum seekers, including expediting the granting of Ministerial Discretion for the provision of refugee status or bridging visas, or the granting of complementary protection to those who may not meet the criteria for refugee status but for whom return would place them at risk of human rights abuse;

• ensure no person is returned to a country where they may face human rights abuses.

To find out more about the refugee rights campaign visit

Bartlett continues hunger strike

Monday, December 20, 2004. 8:32pm (AEDT)

Democrat Senator Andrew Bartlett is continuing his hunger strike to show support for refugees in detention centres.

The Queensland politician began his fast at the weekend.

He says the Federal Government's treatment of asylum-seekers has been disgraceful and he is determined to draw public attention to their cause.

"Certainly, still keen to ensure that the plight of the people in detention, not just the Iranians currently expressing their plight, but the other long-term detainees in Baxter and Nauru does get greater public awareness," he said.

Some detainees at the Baxter Detention Centre have been staging a roof-top hunger strike for a fortnight.

At one stage, the protest involved 20 detainees.

Adelaide: 81 Flinders Street

The South Australian Greens have organised a rally for this Wed 22nd at 1pm outside Amanda Vanstone's office at 81 Flinders Street, Adelaide city in support of the Bakhtyari family and the Iranian hunger-strikers.

Bartlett's hunger strike gave hope

An Iranian asylum seeker who has been on a hunger strike in Baxter said on the phone to a supporter today that when Andrew Bartlett joined the hunger strike 'everyone lit up with hope'. It was as if someone had heard them, he said. 'We are used to the liberal and labor parties ignoring us or saying what bad people we are. But Mr Bartlett links our humanity together,' he said.

Andrew Bartlett report-back

From Bartlett's Blog
Tuesday, December 21, 2004

I thought some readers may be interested in the level and nature of the feedback I've received over the last couple of days (if you're not, then read no further).

By late Monday evening, I'd received 96 email messages about my fast in support of the detainees. [the emails are here]

I'm aware of 19 phone calls to my office about it too, but this may not be a complete total, as I didn't check with all my hardworking and wonderful staff. Of the 19 phone calls, 6 were negative and 13 were positive.

I received a larger amount of media calls on this issue over the last day and a half than I can recall on any other single matter this year. This includes at least 9 extended radio interviews today (as opposed to the 'quick grabs' for the hourly news bulletin type of interview) in all states except Tasmania. There were also 3 TV news interviews.

There were 3 main categories of emails - supportive messages from Iranians overseas, and positive and negative messages from people in Australia.One type of feedback I didn't expect was from people overseas. A report by Reuters news came to the attention of some of the Iranian diaspora in various parts of the world and a number of them wrote in with messages of support and thanks for drawing attention to the serious human rights abuses of the current Iranian regime.

I received 39 messages from overseas. 19 of these were from the USA, 7 from the UK, 4 each from Canada and Sweden, and the rest from Italy, Netherlands, India and Japan.Of the 57 email messages I've got so far from Australians, 46 have been positive and 11 have been negative. Of the negative ones, 10 were critical towards asylum seekers and/or Muslims, or abusive of me and 1 expressed concern at the use of hunger strikes as a form of protest.

Bartlett ready to give up hunger strike

Sydney Morning Herald
December 21, 2004 - 3:54PM

After four days without food, Australian Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett is growing weak and expects to wind up his hunger strike in support of asylum seekers on Wednesday.

Senator Bartlett has been fasting since Friday night, refusing food [in support of detainees] at the Baxter immigration detention centre, near Port Augusta, in South Australia's north.

About 20 detainees have been involved in a hunger strike that began two weeks ago and Senator Bartlett on Wednesday urged them to start eating before they suffered long term damage.

"I don't have mountains of energy," he said when asked about his own health.

"But I'm not doing very much anyway in terms of expending energy.

"I expect probably by tomorrow I might wind it up. There's other people doing various actions around the country to try and reinforce the public's thoughts."

Senator Bartlett said refugee advocates were planning day-long fasts in Launceston and Darwin on Wednesday which would keep attention on the plight of asylum seekers detained at Baxter.

But he hoped detainees on the hunger strike would join him in giving it up on Wednesday.

"I would be happy if people put an end to the hunger strike to ensure they didn't risk any greater harm to themselves than is already being done by the government," Senator Bartlett said.

An Iranian asylum seeker at the Baxter facility told a supporter on the phone that everyone lit up with hope when they learned of Senator Bartlett's hunger strike.

"It was as if someone had heard them," a refugee advocate quoted him as saying.

"We are used to the Liberal and Labor parties ignoring us or saying what bad people we are.

"But Mr Bartlett links our humanity together."

Senator Bartlett said he had received mixed reactions to his hunger strike but was pleased to know he had given hope to asylum seekers.

"The aim all along is to provide encouragement and support and hope to the people there, hopefully sufficient hope that they might end their hunger strike as well," he said.

The Immigration Department confirmed fewer than 20 of the asylum seekers were continuing to refuse food.

2004 AAP

Link to the article in the Sydney Morning Herald

We treat some killers better than asylum seekers

The Age
Arnold Zable
December 22, 2004

The people suffering indefinite detention are being slowly broken, writes Arnold Zable.

The two-week hunger strike by Iranian inmates in the Baxter detention centre is a desperate cry for help. It is not blackmail. It is not a demand, but a plea. It is an attempt to reveal the horrors of indefinite detention, and a passionate cry for freedom.

Some inmates are now spending their sixth year in detention. After talking to people who have been in touch with the strikers this past fortnight, one overriding message comes through.

As one striker put it: "We have applied for asylum. We have been here too long. Please, let us out." Or, as another inmate said: "I am going mad. I just cannot take it any more."

Indefinite detention creates madness and severe depression. It drives inmates to contemplate suicide and, at times, to attempt it, as several have in recent weeks. One dug a grave and buried himself, and when he was taken from the grave he tried to hang himself. It was indefinite detention that drove three Iranian men to spend 11 days this month on the tin roof of a gymnasium, where they weathered severe thunderstorms, torrential rain and temperatures as high as 40 degrees, and unfurled banners pleading for help.

On Tuesday, December 13, Dr Louise Newman, convener of the Alliance of Health Professionals for Asylum Seekers, summed up the inmates' predicament: "This latest outbreak of despair and self-harm is entirely predictable. Long-term detention damages psychological health and the prospect of indefinite detention results in hopelessness and mental deterioration."

After observing the short sentences sometimes given in Australia for deliberate murder, one detainee remarked, "yet we get indefinite years just for asking for asylum from persecution. The sense of injustice in us is strong. We are every day degraded and humiliated by being locked up and treated like criminals, and in the end we will all crumble."

How can it be that in a democratic country that prides itself on its decency, there are people who languish in prison for trying to seek a new life, free of oppression for themselves and their families? This is a human right under the terms of the 1951 UN conventions on refugees, to which Australia is a signatory.

These inmates have not been convicted of any crime, yet they do not know when, if ever, they will be released or when they could be summarily deported.

The hunger strike raises many issues. Baxter is, in effect, a high-security prison surrounded by an electrified fence. To enter, visitors must pass through a series of electronically controlled gates and doors. Inmates are locked away from public scrutiny and are subject to mental abuse.

The centre is managed by a private company, GSL. Running prisons for profit is not conducive to humane management. Of particular concern is the scandalous use of solitary confinement in isolation cells at the infamous "management unit" as a means of controlling behaviour, including attempted suicide and extreme distress.

Coupled with the horror of detention is the seemingly arbitrary nature of the refugee determination process. While some Iranians have finally gained temporary protection, or bridging visas, all too many remain incarcerated.

There is the predicament of Iranians who have converted to Christianity, a crime punishable by death in Iran.

The suffering of Iranian Shiites and inmates of other faiths are of equal concern, as too is the suffering of inmates from countries such as Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. The deteriorating situation in Iran has increased fears of returning. Amnesty International is one of a number of agencies that have recorded numerous human rights violations in Iran in 2003 and 2004, including torture, imprisonment and public hangings. We should not be sending asylum seekers home to such situations.

Yet all these considerations are overridden by the simple fact that asylum seekers should not be detained in the first place, whether it is in Baxter, on Nauru or in other detention centres.

Whatever the asylum seekers' original claims may have been, their trauma has been compounded by the gross human rights abuses they have been subjected to at the hands of Australian authorities. Indefinite detention is in itself an abuse of human rights and breaches Australia's international obligations. After so many years of imprisonment, these inmates should be let out and allowed the proper counselling and care needed to help restore them to normality.

It is time for the Australian Government to find a dignified and humane solution. What is needed is a circuit breaker, an act of humanity that can immediately end the despair of detained asylum seekers. The Immigration Minister can quickly exercise such an option by issuing humanitarian visas, as she is entitled to do, on a number of grounds.

Long-term mandatory detention for asylum seekers should be abolished. There are humane alternatives practised in countries such as Sweden, and there are a range of well-thought-out alternatives that have been proposed by agencies such as the Refugee Council of Australia, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, and the Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker project. The jailing of innocents in such hellish places is a barbaric practice. It should end before more inmates are driven to attempt suicide, or sink into madness. We are breaking their bodies, their minds and their spirits.

Arnold Zable is the spokesman on asylum seekers for the Melbourne Centre of International PEN. On Saturday he joined a 24-hour fast in empathy with the Baxter hunger strikers.

Link to the article in The Age

Shame, Australia

The Age, Letters
22 December 2004

On Saturday I joined a 24-hour hunger strike with hundreds of others across the country. In Baxter detention centre, 27 people (asylum seekers from Iran) are in total despair after years of indefinite detention and fear of forced deportation to Iran. They are in the second week of a hunger strike. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances doing extraordinary things.

The indefinite detention of asylum seekers is a crime against humanity, to Australia's great shame. My country, my people, find your voices and speak out against this travesty.
Julie Bain, Northcote

Bartlett ends hunger strike

ABC Brisbane News
Wednesday, 22 December 2004

Australian Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett has ended a five-day hunger strike in support of asylum seekers.

The Queensland Senator had been fasting since Friday night in a show of support for asylum seekers who were refusing food at the Baxter detention centre in South Australia's north.

Today, Senator Bartlett joined Labor Party Senator Clair Moore and dozens of protesters outside the Immigration Department in Brisbane to draw attention to what they claim is the inhumane treatment of refugees.

The protesters say Australia's record on refugees is disgraceful, with some detainees being locked up for years.

Senator Moore says despite the high-profile case of the Bakhtiyari family, people are becoming desensitised to the issue.

"They don't think about the issue of refugees or asylum seekers as people who need our help," he said.

"They've been somehow convinced that we're talking about are criminals and people in conflict."

Senator Bartlett says the Federal Government has reneged on Australia's long-standing commitment to welcome people who are fleeing persecution.

Bartlett ends five-day hunger strike

Seven News
Date: 22/12/04
By Roberta Mancuso

Australian Democrats senator Andrew Bartlett ended his five-day hunger strike in support of asylum seekers, saying the first thing he wanted to eat was a piece of fruit.

The Queensland-based senator and former party leader had been fasting since Friday night in a show of support for about 20 asylum seekers refusing food at the Baxter immigration detention centre in South Australia's north.

A visibly tired Senator Bartlett encouraged detainees to end their own hunger strike, assuring them their Australian supporters would take up the cause.

"The asylum seekers have already suffered enormous damage to their health from being locked up for so many years by the government. I don't want them risking more harm to their well-being," he said.

He said asylum seekers felt supported by his actions, and he believed his protest had drawn greater attention to the plight faced by detainees held at the Baxter centre, and on Christmas Island and Nauru.

His decision to participate in the hunger strike drew criticism from Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone, who labelled him silly and foolish and said it was irresponsible for a member of parliament to set an example that could result in serious health problems.

But Senator Bartlett accused the minister of having her priorities out of whack.

"For the minister to say that it sends a bad message for someone like me to not be eating for a few days in support of people who are being denied justice I think shows how warped her understanding of priorities are," he said.

Senator Bartlett said two supporters of asylum seekers, Don Sinnamon and Emad Soliman, would take over his hunger strike so detainees could end theirs.

They said "rolling hunger strikes" would continue into the New Year, with each person going without food for a maximum of three days.

Senator Bartlett said he had sustained himself by drinking juice and tea during his fast, which ended on Wednesday afternoon, but he was looking forward to eating solid food again.

"I might get a piece of fruit or something like that," he said after addressing a small rally outside the Immigration Department offices in Brisbane.

"I don't have a lot of energy but I've been taking it pretty easy anyway.

"I've been careful about it and by some extent I've been energised by the level of support for the cause that it's generated."

First Report (8/12) | Second Report (12/12) | Third Report (14/12) | Fourth Report (16/12) | Fifth Report (18/12) | Sixth Report (21/12) | Seventh Report (24/12)


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