Click for menu
Asylum seekers in the dormitory in Nauru's Topside Camp

Signing up for Death

Written for Green Left Weekly by Jack H Smit

"Words from IOM or from a government delegation, or even from UNHCR did not change their resolve on Christmas eve, when the messages from Australia started seeping through via advocates.

At Project SafeCom we have confirmed reports that essential information sent to them on Christmas eve, was consciously withheld by IOM camp management until well after New Year. When this news finally reached them, six people bowed out of the hunger strike."

"The hunger strike has slowly fizzled out after more than four weeks. But if those 'unlucky ones' who are not 'selected' for re-determination stay behind on the Island, there will be another disaster in the future.

Only if they receive an offer of protection status in Australia or elsewhere such as in New Zealand, and are all taken out and brought to the mainland, further disaster can be averted. As a detainee on Nauru, you've got nothing to loose but your life. If that alone is your power, a time may come that you'll use it."

Related pages

lip stitching5-25 December 2004: The hunger strike of the Iranians at the Baxter detention centre - In the excruciating desparation of being locked up for up to five years, the Iranians started a hunger strike in December 2004. Up to 27 men were involved, and Project SafeCom's office was operational during the entire period, while we kept in touch with the supporters' network around the men, and briefed reporters to keep the issue in the news. We wrote seven reports.

16 February 2004: Frederika Steen: Through the Nauru Looking Glass - "A significant and growing number of ordinary Australians are appalled. They act - individually and in small groups, from places around Australia, to show compassion and to compensate for what they perceive as official sadism and inhumanity. From the grassroots of Australian society we continue to challenge a Government that has eroded our international reputation for fairness and decency and called into question our values as a society."

12 January 2004: Hazara Es, and stuck on Lombok - Hunger strikers and refugees stuck on Lombok are all refugees "pushed back" from Ashmore Reef by the Royal Australian NAVY in October 2001, the lead-up to the last Federal Election.

18 March 2004: Force Feeding Hunger striking asylum seekers - An academic paper by Mary-Anne Kenny, Derrick Silove & Zachary Steel: Legal and ethical implications of medically enforced feeding of detained asylum seekers on hunger strike. If called upon to treat hunger strikers, [Australian] medical practitioners should be aware of their ethical and legal responsibilities, and that they should act independently of government or institutional interests.

Signing up for Death

by Jack H Smit
Project SafeCom Inc.
11 January 2004
Originally written for
Green Left Weekly

Will you please observe through the wire
I am sewing my feet together
They have walked about as far
As they ever need to go

Will you further observe
Through the wire
I am sewing my heart together
It is now so full of
The ashes of my days
It will not hold
Any more

Through the wire
One last time
Please observe
I am sewing my lips together
That which you are denying us
We should never have
Had to ask for.

unknown detainee, as used in Citizen X [1]

Vanstone's queue

Almost there: the Palapa reaches the MV Tampa, unaware of the dramas soon to unfold

The organisers and participants of the Nauru hunger strike announced on New Year's Day that from January 10 they would also start sewing their eyes, and in response Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone did the media rounds, promoting her glossy story about Australia's 2003 quota of 12,000, taken from the queue in the refugee camps - proudly mentioning the refugees taken by Australia from the Kakuma camp in Kenya. She avoided mentioning that in recent years Australia has not taken one single refugee from Juma's Indonesian queue - perhaps not since the last Labor government days - the main reason why those joining Juma on the Palapa, and many others on other boats in the last four years, took their own initiative to try and reach Australia.

Sleeping with the enemy

While UNHCR's regional representative in Australia Michel Gabaudan recently told Project SafeCom that some asylum seekers on Nauru were interviewed as many as six times using different interpreters, detainees on Nauru involved in the hunger strike tell a different story altogether - they assert that they were interviewed just once, and that the interpreter chosen by UNHCR was Pashtoon - or a member of a hostile ethnic group in Afghanistan - something also alleged by Dutch psychiatrist Maarten Dormaar - who worked for IOM on Nauru in 2001 - in conversations with Project SafeCom. Gabaudan admitted that one interpreter has been sacked since the assessment process on Nauru had started.

Human rights campaigner Julian Burnside QC compares using a Pashtoon interpreter with interviewing Jews during the holocaust using a Nazi translator. IOM's second-in-charge on Nauru last year was also a member of the Pashtoon group in Afghanistan. Not a good idea, considering most Afghanis on Nauru are Hazara, and they came to seek asylum because of their claimed persecution in the first place. This presence of a Pashtoon in charge in the Nauru camp, someone who had access to links back to Afghanistan, posed a serious danger for the asylum seekers. The issue had to be brought to DIMIA's attention by refugee advocates on the Australian mainland: DIMIA was oblivious to this precarious situation.

Burden shifting

When Howard birthed The Pacific Solution during the election campaign in 2001, his puppet in the Immigration Department Philip Ruddock touted that the associated refugee determinations would all be over within a few months, but those statements are now long forgotten by all - except for the asylum seekers on Nauru. About one hundred of the refugees who passed UNHCR's scrutiny to become "approved refugees" were left to rot in the island for exactly one-year-to-the-day after their assessment was complete, while former Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock toured virtually the entire world claiming an obligation on the part of countries including Pakistan and Germany - who in a two-year period process more refugees than Australia has ever processed in its entire refugee intake history - to take part in 'burden sharing' to help resolve Australia's "refugee problem".

Alas, every single country told Ruddock to get lost and solve his own problems, rejecting his "burden shifting": not one country participated in the crucial burden sharing aspect, the cornerstone of Ruddock's much touted Pacific Solution. UNHCR Chief Ruud Lubbers used the word 'atrocious' when he referred to Ruddock's attempts to shift the burden of a less than a thousand refugees to other countries. Rapidly, the Pacific Solution was becoming an Australian Problem. If it were not for the generosity of New Zealand, which took about 140 refugees, and more recently another two dozen or so, Australia would have been hung out to dry entirely on its own.

New Zealand also tried to save Australia from further embarrassment by taking on the first three of the seven women who had sailed to Australia in the hope of joining their husbands, who already lived in the Australian community as refugees on TPV's [6]: under Australia's policy since the last election, those women could be refused refugee status while their husbands had been accepted: a tiny but refined detail of the policy designed to maximize torture and deterrence to those who dare to seek asylum Down Under without being personally invited by its sanctimonious minister. The seven women were painted as "trouble makers" during the unrest around Christmas 2002, when they protested at the fence and threw stones at their guards. It was a David and Goliath protest, resembling Palistinian kids throwing rocks at Israeli tanks. Four of the women are still languishing on Nauru, more than a year after the event.

Refugee lottery

Yes you are, no you're not, yes you are a refugee, is UNHCR's summary since the start of the assessment of the Tampa refugees, because if you were so lucky to get your assessment finalised before the fall of the Taliban and you came from Afghanistan, you would have been very likely to have qualified as a refugee under the UN clauses.

Later, after the proclamations by the US administration that the Taliban was no more, Afghanistan was pronounced all clear. So the unlikely alliance of UNHCR's most tactful assessors on Nauru with a manipulative and unwilling Australian government, intent on refusing rather than accepting refugees, there was little choice to declare those who were still waiting that they should be a part of rebuilding the country and go home.

With the more recent news that Taliban & Co is not dead at all, but alive and murderous, UNHCR is again trying to save its skin by not antagonising governments while at the same time completing assessments using updated "country information" - declaring that "some regions" are unsafe, rather than declaring Afghanistan as a whole unsafe. Therefore it is a legacy of the Australian government's unwilling attitude towards 'refugees with initiative', not of UNHCR's attempts to do the right thing, that the hunger strikers and their allies call themselves 'refugees' while UNHCR has previously rejected their claims.

Just to be sure though, Vanstone has increased the volume of her media noise and clutter about "illegals" and "queue jumpers" and "they're not at all refugees" since the start of the hunger strike, starting to sound like the Pauline Hanson of the Liberal Party with these mantras...

Contrary to most UN signatory countries, under the Howard government there is no room for a wider or secondary determination - a generosity for those from countries still ravaged from wars and instability where a person may not qualify as a convention refugee but still be found to be a "person in need of protection", outside provisions for ministerial intervention and discretion. Regrettably, there is no generosity in the Howard government because it doesn't have the heart or the political will to support "uninvited" refugees on Nauru beyond the minimum assessment criteria - without being forced by an approval of them under UNHCR's criteria, within the constraints of the diminished down-under refugee convention.

Just before Christmas UNHCR went public with its intent to re-assess at least 22 cases of those on Nauru based on new country information from certain areas in Afghanistan. Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone followed suit by announcing that the government would follow and allow cases from these regions for new applications of approval of refugee status. Immediately one of the agents for the hunger strikers went into action and faxed the information to Nauru. But nothing happened - and we have it from reliable sources that IOM management simply obstructed: the information was finally delivered to the hunger strikers about ten days later. Immediately six people bowed out of the hunger strike. They could have stopped the strike ten days earlier, when the faxed material first arrived.

Almost a holiday

A few days after the hunger strike became public news, Vanstone went out of her way to declare that refugees on Nauru were free to go shopping, visit the internet café in town, had luxuries no other detainee had on the mainland, that medical care was excellent and that the hospital coped very well. And Downer went on air telling Australians that he would not abandon Nauru and that $1.3 million dollars was on the way to pay the public servants' Christmas salaries. With that, Downer announced Australia's medical liability insurance for the hunger strike.

On Nauru, where the population has one of the highest rates of diabetes of any nation, everyone's food comes from tin cans, and if the old desalination plant is out of order the population relies on water imported from other island nations in the Pacific. The state of the toilets would contravene Australian health standards, with its flushing time limited to about two hours a day. Too bad if a deadly epidemic catches you too when its viral organisms are passed on through someone else's faeces: that's your own fault, you shouldn't have become a reffo in the first place but go home and get a decent job, appears to be Howard's implicit message.

Detainees are worried about the effect of desalinated water on their kidneys, while the hunger strikers reported that during the Christmas period doctors were often nowhere to be seen, that during weekends the limited hospital was staffed by nurses; they also reported that IOM - without a medical standards accountability brief - with or without medical staff present, conducted much of the medical supervision in the camp, replacing the medicos on the island.

Under the terms of the 1992 Declaration of Malta, formulated by the World Medical Association [7], hunger strikers have the right to independent medical care at their behest, and the right to continue a hunger strike. This seriously compromises the current medical care by IOM staff - with their obvious predetermined agenda to protect 'the good name of the company they work for', and the medical care by the Nauruan doctors, where suicide is an imprisonable crime under its constitution. Calls by Amnesty International and the Australian Medical Association for independent medical (inspection) teams have been rebuffed by more Amanda spin - she just keeps telling Australia about the great care on Nauru, contradicting the hospital doctor Kieran Keke and the Finance Minister Kinza Clodumar, who claim that calls for help from the hospital have been ignored by Australia.

No visits

In the last two years some Australians attempted a crossing to Nauru. The first and most successful example resulted in Sarah MacDonald's BBC production Australia's Pacific Solution, starring Julian Burnside's wife, artist and refugee advocate Kate Durham - shot with hidden bumbag cameras in the detention centre on Nauru.

While the quality of this piece of work would well rate for high distinctions as a documentary, nobody was in a hurry for this extraordinary documentary to be screened on mainstream Australian television - most likely a result of extreme pressures applied on the Australian media by the Howard government, or political weaselling or bias on the part of the executive producers of those organisations.

Subsequent attempts to fly into Nauru became harder and harder, with a team of lawyers and medicos attempting to sneak into Nauru stopped in their tracks at Sydney airport in 2003, and the Australian government quickly rescheduling Air Nauru flight schedules from then on, and eliminating the standing three-and-a-half day stop-over opportunity into Nauru, arranging with the Nauruan authorities that tourist visas to Nauru for Australian passport holders would no longer be issued. When on January 2 a team from the New Zealand Dominion Post sneaked in on NZ passports for a day and filled the newspapers in their country as well as Australia with direct witness reports and stories from detainees, the Nauruan government, no doubt under pressure from Australia, immediately moved to strike out tourist visas for New Zealanders as well.

For the August 2003 visit by Democrats leader Andrew Bartlett this meant that just before his departure his interpreter, Hazara Society President Hassan Ghulam suddenly found his visa cancelled, while Jesuit priest Father Frank Brennan's 2003 visa application, requested to give some form of spiritual support to detainees and establish contact with the church leaders on Nauru, was also refused.

The clear intention of Camp Nauru is to withhold scrutiny by the media, legal appeals or advocacy and any other outsiders who may be partisan to refugees, as if that's an undesirable trait - but more corruptly, to place asylum claimants outside the reach of Australian legislation pertaining to asylum seekers, as if the meagre post-Ruddock Australian version of the UN Convention applicable on the mainland leaves any room at all for profiteering by would-be refugees.

Nauru is a twisted and sick experiment comparable to Guantanamo Bay, the Siberian Gulags and the Nazi camps in Europe, and even though the detainees interrupted this hunger strike a few days ago, Nauru may well be prove to be an experiment in tax-payer funded genocide. I for one barrack for a successful international prosecution [8] of all the agents in the Australian government who have been complicit in dreaming up this abomination.

Conscious choice

The hunger strikers started their action on Human Rights Day 2003, the 10th of December. With that carefully chosen starting date it should have been clear from the beginning to all observers, that the hunger strike was a clear, deliberate and conscious action on their part.

It must be understood that they have come to the point where they well know that many rights outlined in the International Declaration of Human Rights [9] pertaining to their situation have been deliberately withheld from them by means of official policy, not by accident but by precise and targeted arrangement on the part of the Australian government.

This is in addition to their feeling of despair about their refugee status, because within the limited powers of UNHCR within the constraints of the Australian policy framework, they were refused refugee status, while they hear every day from their friends and family by email, from the internet and by phone, about how things are developing in their villages, towns and regions in Afghanistan - or for the Iraqis, in Iraq after Saddam Hussein.

They know exactly how they have been left to rot, they have seen how the seven wives of the Australian TPV holders were denied refugee status by Australia, they know how the hundred or so approved Convention refugees were ignored for a year. They remember Ruddock's statements that it would all be over in a matter of months, and they remember having been hijacked by the Navy who failed to tell them they were not going to Australia but to Nauru - and they remember how they were locked away in the dark hold of the Manoora during the journey. And they know they live on the end of Rubbish Tip Road.

Words from IOM or from a government delegation, or even from UNHCR did not change their resolve on Christmas eve, when the messages from Australia started seeping through via advocates. At Project SafeCom we have confirmed reports that essential information sent to them on Christmas eve, was consciously withheld by IOM camp management until well after New Year. When this news finally reached them, six people bowed out of the hunger strike.

The hunger strike has slowly fizzled out after more than four weeks. But if those 'unlucky ones' who are not 'selected' for re-determination stay behind on the Island, there will be another disaster in the future. Only if they receive an offer of protection status in Australia or elsewhere such as in New Zealand, and are all taken out and brought to the mainland, further disaster can be averted. As a detainee on Nauru, you've got nothing to loose but your life. If that alone is your power, a time may come that you'll use it.


[1] Excerpt from the script of the play "Citizen X", entirely based on letters from Australian detention centres, See the transcript of the play

[2] Juma sent his story to Project SafeCom at the time.

[3] Australia's Department of Immigration

[4] The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the UN's refugee agency

[5] International Organisation for Migration

[6] Temporary Protection Visa: Australia is the only UN Convention country where you have to re-prove that you're a refugee after the TPV lapses after 3 years

[7] The full text can be found at the Amnesty International Web site at this location.

[8] Julian Burnside QC's argument that the Australian government, since the signing of the International Torture Convention and the adjustment of Australian legislation in tandem with this signing, may well be liable for prosecution for crimes against humanity over the Nauru detention. See the page at

[9] See our printout of the International Declaration of Human Rights, which includes comments about the breaches of this Declaration through the asylum seeker policies at