News and other Busyness
Rochester Refugees End Hunger Strike
Refugees detained without charge or time limit are ignored reports Andy Johnson
Squall 15, Summer 1997, pg. 7.
REFUGEES imprisoned in a Rochester jail ended two months of hunger strike in March after several of their number were released and national attention was focussed on their plight.
In January 74 asylum seekers in Rochester jail, in Kent, announced they intended to go on a "mass hunger" until their cases were looked at by an independent committee.
Their statement read: "Many of us have already served two years and more. We are detained without charge or time limit. Numerous suicide attempts, hunger strikes and official complaints have gone unheard.
"Approximately 45 per cent of detainees have been diagnosed as having mental or physical disorders and traumas following psychological and mental torture, being poorly fed and from deplorable sanitation."
Demonstrations in Rochester in support of the hunger strikers were organised by grass-roots organsations and local union branches. The media did not take an interest until the condition of a core number of 20 hunger strikers, who came from places such as Angola, Algeria, Nigeria and Tunisia, became critical.
Although the then prisons minister, Anne Widdecombe, correctly stated the jailed hunger strikers could apply for bail, bail conditions were being set at £5,000.
At the end of February five asylum seekers were released by the High Court who made it clear the only excuse for incarcerating refugees was if it was thought likely they would abscond.
Some of the asylum seekers went for 47 days without food. After 20 days the British Medical Council warned the then Home Secretary Michael Howard that even after that amount of time there was a "likelihood of serious and irreversible neurological and kidney damage".
It is believed at least one hunger striker suffered kidney damage. Another, an Angolan political refugee, was released with an £8 travel card, two £1 coins and left to fend for himself.
Mark Palframan, of the Autonomous Refugee Centre in Hackney, North London, said a feature of the campaign was the absence of the "liberal establishment".
"It was left to community groups, church groups, concerned local individuals and radicals to speak out about it," he told Squall.
Mr Palframan said weekly demonstrations took place outside the prison on Saturdays and outside the Home Office on Wednesdays. They began small and soon grew to several hundred people. The campaign also included a disruption of Anne Widdecombe's weekly surgery at her constituency in Maidstone.
He added that the initiative for the hunger strikes came independently from the asylum seekers.
Brian Debus, a Unison organiser also closely involved in the campaign said exact figures of the number on hunger strike at any one time and the number of those released as a result was difficult to assess.
"One of the big problems is that at any one time there are between 180 and 200 asylum seekers at Rochester," he said. "Some have legal representation and some don't. Some of the detainees had their cases highlighted as a result of the hunger strikes and some were released."
He added that the official reason for imprisoning asylum seekers is a fear they will vanish while their cases are assessed.
But campaigners suspected the hidden agenda was to deter asylum seekers from coming to Britain in the first place and also to "make those who are detained more complicit with the idea of being returned".