Hundreds of asylum seekers have gone on hunger strike at an Australian immigration detention center in Papua New Guinea, rights groups said this week, with some sewing their lips shut, swallowing razor blades and drinking washing powder to highlight fears for their security.
Australia uses offshore detention centers in Papua New Guinea and the tiny South Pacific island nation of Nauru to process would-be refugees trying to reach the country. The refugees often arrive in unsafe boats after paying people-smugglers in Indonesia.
The detention center on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea was the scene of deadly riots in February 2014, in which one asylum seeker was killed and more than 70 injured after residents overran the camp, attacking detainees with makeshift weapons.
The protests began after detainees were told they would be moved into new accommodation, which they feared they make them more vulnerable to attack, said Ian Rintoul, executive director of the Refugee Action Coalition.
“Things have just come to a head. It’s impossible to exaggerate the real fears that people have for their safety and for their lives,” he told Reuters.
Rintoul said on Friday that up to 40 men had sewn their lips together, three others had swallowed razor blades and four had consumed washing powder. There were also reports that more than 400 people were on hunger strike.
Australia’s Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, confirmed a “number of incidents of self-harm within Manus,” adding he was worried about the “volatile situation” at the camp.
Papua New Guinea’s government, however, denied the reports on Saturday. “There was no physical engagement between asylum seekers and security personnel,” a government spokesman said in a statement.
Manus Island is one of the poorest regions of Papua New Guinea and residents have repeatedly expressed anger at the prospect of refugees being resettled in a community already lacking jobs.
Many of the detainees have been in the camps as long as 18 months and a technical problem has left them without running water for bathing.
The U.N. refugee agency has condemned Australia’s camps on Manus and Nauru as “harsh” facilities that “impact very profoundly on the men, women and children housed there,” and asked for information from the government, warning that Australia could be breaking international law if it is forcing boats back to Indonesia without proper regard for safety.
Under new laws instituted by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, none of the asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea will ever be eligible for resettlement in Australia, even if they are found to be genuine refugees.
The government says that the camps have helped to remove the financial incentive for people smugglers, in the process saving hundreds of lives that might otherwise have been lost at sea in rickety boats.