Washington: At least six immigrant detainees, including Indians, have been force-fed through nasal tubes by immigration authorities in the US after they went on a hunger strike to protest conditions at a processing centre in Texas, drawing a strong reaction from Indian-American groups which described it as violation of human rights.
In a statement, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said that as of Wednesday night, 11 detainees in El Paso had refused to eat; four other individuals at different ICE detention centres across the country were also on hunger strike, officials said.
Of the 11 people starving themselves in El Paso, six were being hydrated and force-fed under court orders issued by a federal judge in mid-January about two weeks after those detainees stopped eating, ICE said. Two of the 11 people began their hunger strike on Wednesday, officials added.
"The ICE Health Services Corps is medically monitoring the detainees' health and regularly updating ICE of their medical status," the agency's statement said.
"Efforts are being taken to protect the detainees' health and privacy".
Ruby Kaur, a lawyer for two of the detainees in Texas says her clients, like the majority of those taking part in the hunger strike there, are Indian immigrants who entered the US through southern border more than six months ago and turned themselves in to officials.
"They have tubes that have been shoved through their noses and IV's giving them fluids. It's extremely painful and it's against their will," Kaur told NPR, adding that as recently as Thursday morning her clients told her in a phone conversation that they are experiencing nasal and rectal bleeding and vomiting.
They began the hunger strike at the start of the new year to call attention to what they say are inhumane conditions, repeated verbal threats of deportation and debilitating angst created by a total absence of information about their impending asylum cases.
Kaur said that up until 10 days ago about the time a federal judge ordered the nasogastric intubation both of her clients and several others, were held in solitary confinement for two weeks "to intimidate them" into ending the protest.
"They want to get out and be with their families. They want move forward with their legal cases," Kaur said, adding that each of her clients have extended family living in the US.
Christina Fialho, the co-executive director of the nonprofit Freedom for Immigrants, said as many as 30 people could be on hunger strike in El Paso, a higher figure than the one ICE provided.
The use of force-feeding, she said, represented an escalation in the tactics used by immigration officials on detainees. "It's barbaric," she added.
An ICE spokeswoman did not comment directly on the allegations leveled by Kaur and Fialho.
But the agency said that it does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers and that it tells detainees about the negative health effects of not eating, The New York Times reported.
Th Indian-American community in the US has expressed concern over reports that that federal immigration officials are force-feeding Indian detainees.
North American Punjabi Association (NAPA) in a statement said 11 Indian detainees at the El Paso Processing Center in Texas have been refusing food.
"Force-feeding to any immigrant is a violation of human rights," said NAPA executive director Satnam Singh Chahal.
Some of the detainees have been on fast for more than 30 days, he said.
"They are now so weak that they cannot stand up or talk. This is learnt that they stopped eating to protest verbal abuse and threats of deportation from guards. They are also upset about lengthy lock ups while awaiting legal proceedings," he said.
Instead of the authorities not addressing the detainees' allegations of abuse, Chahal alleged that El Paso Processing Centre is not following the federal standards for care.
"The men with nasal tubes are having persistent nose bleeds, and are vomiting several times a day. They are not well. Their bodies are really weak, they can't talk and they have been hospitalized, back and forth, they want to know why they are still in the jail and want to get their rights and wake up the government immigration system," he said.
In a separate statement, South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) said that it is deeply disturbed by reports of staff at the El Paso, Texas detention processing centre force-feeding mostly Indian and Cuban detainees in the midst of a hunger strike.
Up to 30 detainees, the majority of whom have pending asylum claims, went on a hunger strike after verbal and psychological abuse at the hands of ICE and detention centre staff at the notorious El Paso facility, SAALT said.
"Individuals should not have to put their bodies and lives on the line to draw attention to their indefinite detention. Our nation's immigration system should provide protection from violence and persecution, yet current practices create an increasingly punitive asylum process, which only extends the violence and persecution asylum seekers are fleeing," Suman Raghunathan, SAALT executive director, said.