An immigration department spokesman said “around 100” asylum-seekers being held at the Christmas Island detention centre had launched the strike on Saturday night after they were told they would be sent to Nauru.
They will be among the first group transferred to the tiny and remote Pacific island to await the processing of their refugee claims under a strict new policy Canberra hopes will deter a record flow of people-smuggling ships.
“They were informed yesterday of the decision to transfer them to Nauru, and obviously it’s pretty difficult news to take,” the spokesman told AFP.
“We’re managing that and trying to provide all the support and assistance we can, it’s obviously pretty difficult all round.”
Under new legislation passed by parliament this month asylum-seekers who arrive by boat will be sent to either Nauru or Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island for indefinite periods while their visas are assessed.
It represents an about-face by the Labor Party which abandoned the policy after winning power in 2007, after complaints people had languished for years on the islands before being resettled under the previous government.
Authorities have not clarified how long people would have to wait on Nauru or Manus before being resettled and have admitted that the remote facilities are so run down they were not yet suitable for use.
Refugee activists said “around 67” detainees were believed to be on hunger strike in the Christmas Island facility and “scores” of police had also been sent to the remote immigration centre to head off any protests.
“The hunger strikers say that their treatment is unfair — they were not aware of any changed policy by the Australian government,” said activist Ian Rintoul.
No change on government policy
There were reportedly similar starvation protests occurring at facilities in the northern city of Darwin, where refugee advocates said a group that included unaccompanied minors was “shocked” to learn they would also be sent offshore.
“The fact that unaccompanied minors… may be sent to remote locations for unknown periods of time should be a source of shame for the minister for immigration and the Australian government,” said Darwin activist Peter Robson.
“There is little wonder as a result that there are reports that there are large hunger strikes now occurring in Darwin.”
The immigration spokesman said food, water and medical assistance was available to all detainees and they were “obviously encouraged” to eat and drink.
“These sorts of protests and activities don’t have any effect on the outcome of their case, and likewise it won’t alter government policy,” he said.