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Migrants on hunger strike follow long tradition of people using their bodies to protest against cruelty

Migrants in immigration detention are turning to hunger strikes as a weapon of last resort. Igor Kisselev/Shutterstock

Those Western states pursuing more aggressive border control policies in recent years have increased the use of immigration detention centres. These are often squalid, degrading places where detainees are deprived of their most basic human rights and due process.

A recent report for the US Department of Homeland Security concluded that there was “dangerous overcrowding” at detention facilties in Texas, with adults and children crammed together for prolonged periods.

Those caught in the legal black hole of detention lack political rights of free speech and participation, but this has not prevented them from fighting back using one of the few weapons left at their disposal – sovereignty over their own bodies.

More than 100 detainees recently went on hunger strike in Louisiana to protest the arbitrary denial of their parole and release. In El Paso, four Indian asylum seekers who have been locked up for over a year have been on hunger strike since the beginning of July.

Migrants and asylum seekers have also engaged in political self-starvation in France, Spain, the UK, Italy, Mexico, Indonesia, New Zealand, Greece, and many other states across the world. In the UK, there have been more than 3,000 hunger strikes in immigration removal centres since 2015, according to figures recently released by the Home Office.

In Australia’s offshore detention centres of Manus and Nauru, there have been numerous hunger strikes, sometimes accompanied by lip-sewing and even acts of self-immolation. While some protests focus on individual asylum cases, others take aim at wider policy.

A hunger strike by 100 women at the Yarl’s Wood detention centre in the UK in 2018 demanded an end to the state’s practice – unique in the EU – of detaining people without legal time limits.

Authorities have frequently resorted to threats and intimidation in an attempt to disrupt these protests. The Yarl’s Wood protesters received a letter from the Home Office warning them that their actions could result in their “removal from the UK taking place sooner”.

Read more: I befriend women detained at Yarl's Wood: their life in immigration limbo is excruciating

In El Paso, hunger strikers were force fed earlier this year, and a judge recently authorised the force-feeding of three of the Indian detainees, despite unequivocal condemnation of the practice by the World Medical Association, the American Medical Association and other leading organisations. These reports bring to mind the chilling accounts of force-feeding of prisoners through nasal tubes in Guantanamo Bay, which provoked international condemnation.

A powerful tool

The hunger strike has long been understood as a weapon of last resort by the powerless and disenfranchised. It can involve either a time-limited symbolic refusal of food, or – in more extreme cases – a prolonged fast that eventually leads to loss of cognition, organ damage and even death.

In medieval Ireland, people would fast on the doorstep of those they believed had wronged them; if they died, the accused inherited their debts. Ancient India had a similar practice.

In the early 20th century, British suffragettes first used hunger strikes as a tactic to demand recognition as political prisoners. The suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst wrote of the “sickening sensation” of force-feeding, though she noted that the “sense of degradation” was even worse than the pain.

The tactic was then borrowed by Irish republican prisoners, ten thousand of whom went on hunger strike in British prisons between 1916 and 1923. The brilliant and harrowing film, Hunger, by Steve McQueen, portrays the most famous republican hunger strike in the Maze prison, Belfast, when Bobby Sands starved to death in 1981 with nine other prisoners.

Bobby Sands, who was elected MP during his time in prison, died after a hunger strike in 1981. Evan McCaffrey/Shutterstock

Mahatma Gandhi used political fasting to great effect against the British in India and to pressure Hindus and Muslims to halt sectarian violence. He came to regard the hunger strike as one of the most powerful tools in the arsenal of non-violent resistance.

South African anti-apartheid activists, Turkish Marxists, Palestinian militants and Tibetan monks have likewise used hunger strikes with varying degrees of success, along with thousands of ordinary prisoners protesting solitary confinement and other abuses.

Self-destructive resistance

At first glance, such acts of self-destruction might seem oddly irrational or self-defeating. Many forms of resistance – such as a classic workers’ strike – aim to place economic and other costs on opponents. Yet with the hunger strike, the most severe costs are suffered by protesters, who risk pain, bodily damage and even death.

Nonetheless, detainees know that the refusal of food can shame the authorities who bear ultimate responsibility for the lives of those in their custody. In this way, it can be understood as a form of “moral jiu jitsu” that uses the overwhelming power of the modern state against it.

By striking, hunger strikers also exert some measure of control against a system that micromanages their lives and strips them of agency. They demonstrate that they are sovereign over their own bodies and that the most serious decision of all – over life and death – is still in their hands.

As Guantanamo detainee Lakhdar Boumediene put it:

They could lock me up for no reason and with no chance to argue my innocence. They could torture me, deprive me of sleep, put me in an isolation cell, control every single aspect of my life. But they couldn’t make me swallow their food.

For detained migrants and refugees, the choice of such an extreme technique is powerful evidence of the cruelty they are subject to in detention, and their moral determination to resist. Caged and herded like animals, they exhibit the characteristically human capacity of mastering their natural appetites in pursuit of a higher ideal.

While authorities in the US and elsewhere frequently attempt to dismiss hunger strikers as pathological and mentally ill, the strike is in reality a careful and deliberate form of political action. As such, hunger striking should be respected as an expression of the fundamental human right to protest, as set out in Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This means that immigration authorities around the world must refrain from force-feeding, and all other forms of intimidation and listen to the just claims of detainees regarding their treatment.

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