Over Thanksgiving, more than 100 detainees from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and Africa launched hunger strikes at several detention centers across the country at the Etowah Detention Center in Alabama and the Theo Lacy and Otay detention centers in California.
The movement is being called the #FreedomGiving Hunger Strikes. According to DRUM — South Asian Organizing Center, a South Asian immigrant rights organization in New York City working with the detainees, and the #Not1More campaign, additional detainees have joined the #FreedomGiving strike: 13 detainees in Aurora, Colorado, nine detainees in Adelanto, and nine detainees in the South Texas Detention Facility.
A wave of hunger strikes have occurred throughout detention centers over the past seven weeks, primarily by detainees from Bangladesh and Pakistan seeking political asylum. According to DRUM, many of the strikers have been detained for up to two years, despite facing dire political situations in their home countries.
Shahidul Islam, a 27-year-old man from Bangladesh, has been held at the Theo Lacy Center for over 13 months. Islam told NBC News he arrived at the Mexican border from Bangladesh last November and has since been struggling to claim political asylum. In Bangladesh, Islam said he was part of the current opposing political party, Bangladesh Nationalistic Party (BNP), and faced physical assaults and death threats because of his political views.
“We’re prepared to die here, but not in Bangladesh. We want an opportunity to live."
“My father is a farmer and we were coming back from selling our crops when 10 or 12 men started attacking me and telling me to leave the BNP party," Islam said. "My father couldn’t handle it and had a heart attack on the spot. He died on the way to the hospital.”
Islam said that if the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported him to Bangladesh, his life would be severely endangered.
“When I entered the border, ICE told me the Bangladeshi government wouldn’t know that was I was here, but my family has been receiving death threats back home. How did they find out I was here?” Islam said. “We were supposed to be a secret, our lives are supposed to be protected.”
Islam told NBC News he is fighting for political asylum through the help of a U.S. sponsor, but said the government has not made the process simple.
“A family friend is sponsoring my stay in the United States and yet ICE is refusing to grant me asylum or release me from the detention center. My sponsor was interviewed for my bond hearing and provided all the proper paperwork and I was still not released,” Islam said.
Islam added that detainees face harsh conditions inside the detention centers, including brutality and racist treatment by the detention center guards, harassment by other inmates, and unsanitary living situations.
“We’re prepared to die here, but not in Bangladesh. We want an opportunity to live,” Islam said.
NBC News was unable to reach authorities at the Theo Lacy Detention Center for comment.
According to a statement from ICE spokesperson Virginia Kice, ICE is aware of the situation at Theo Lacy. “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement takes the health and safety of those in its care seriously,” the statement reads. “Accordingly, the agency is closely monitoring the welfare of 35 residents housed at the Theo Lacy immigration detention facility.”
According to DRUM, since the start of the hunger strikers several strikers at the Etowah and Theo Lacy detention centers were placed in solitary confinement for a few days at a time — an intimidation tactic, DRUM believes, to get detainees to stop the hunger strike.
“What else needs to happen to release these people?” Marisa Franco, director of the #Not1More campaign, said in a statement on the campaign's website. “Whistleblowers should receive protection not retaliation but the opposite is happening inside this country’s detention centers.”