Christmas Island Refugees

Barbed wire cannot contain life:

even with their lips sewn

their mouths speak.

– Jake Dennis

DIAC Images_Christmas Island Fence

Alarmingly, the last resort for many whose cries for help are ignored is self-harm. From early twentieth century American suffragettes like Alice Paul, who went on hunger strikes, to self-immolating Vietnamese Buddhist monks like Thich Quang Duc, people suffering from human rights violations have turned to self-harm to open the public’s eyes to their plight.

In this new millennium, as close to home as Christmas Island, and as recently as last year, reports surfaced that asylum seekers and refugees continue to self-harm and hunger strike in response to the poor conditions under which they are trying to survive. In over-crowded offshore detention centres like Nauru and Manus Island, the living conditions are such that the United Nations considers them a violation of human rights. For these people the promise of timely processing and release is a fantasy.

Photographs released in November 2010 showed detainees on Christmas Island who had sewn their lips together in protest. Those images remain with us. The silence of their protest is as deafening as the most cacophonous riot, perhaps more so, because instead of an unruly boisterous mass of protesters, you have the slow mute starvation of a few desperate and courageous people.

We need to understand refugees not as an easy-to-stereotype mass, but instead adopt a way of seeing that is open to the complexities of individual situations. The characterisation of asylum seekers as unsanitary, unintelligent, and unruly “boat people” denies their humanity. It is easy to argue that Indigenous Australians and British colonisers both accessed this island by boat, and that legal processes are not always an option for third world inhabitants, but what cannot be characterised as argument is the fact that the mental and physical health of refugees seeking a better life can only deteriorate as a result of the current system of detention.

Jake Dennis is a poet, jazz singer, and freelance journalist published in Art Monthly Australia, The Disappearing, Drum Perth, MeDeFacts, Page Seventeen, and Wet Ink. He blogs at and can be found on Twitter @poetofjazz.