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Monday, 21 January, 2002, 12:53 GMT
Australia warns hunger strikers
Burned out building at Woomera detention centre in southern Australia, December 2001
Detainees at Woomera are locked up while they wait
The Australian Government is threatening to remove the children of some asylum-seekers held in a detention centre, who are staging a hunger strike.

The Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, said the government was considering the move after three young boys had stitches removed from their lips.

Parents may not be fulfilling their obligations to their children

Philip Ruddock
They were among more than 50 mostly Afghan asylum seekers held in Woomera camp in central Australia, who have sewn their lips together as a protest against the length of time taken to process their applications.

Meanwhile, asylum seekers have set fire to parts of a detention centre in Western Australia after a five-year-old Iraqi boy was allegedly raped by other detainees.

The Lebanese Muslims Association said the boy was assaulted on Friday night by three Sri Lankan men at the Curtin detention centre near the town of Derby.

The association's vice president, Keysar Trad, said women and children should not be detained with adult men for lengthy periods.

According to Mr Trad the boy, his mother, two brothers and a sister had been held for more than 10 months.

Option to go home

The government imposed a freeze on processing applications from about 2,000 Afghans after the Taleban regime fell last year. It says it will not change its decision.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock
Philip Ruddock: Refugees' status may have changed
Asylum seekers who arrive illegally are automatically detained while their cases are assessed.

Mr Ruddock said those who are unhappy with their treatment in Australia should return home to rebuild their lives.

An Immigration Department spokesman on Monday said 186 of the 238 Afghan detainees at Woomera, including 30 aged under 18, were refusing food and water.

Sixty-two of the protesters had sewn lips.

Lawyers who say they are representing the detainees say they are desperate. They say the asylum seekers want freedom, or death.

Police at the Woomera detention centre of immigrants in southern Australia
Police used water canon to calm the December riots
But Mr Ruddock says many Afghans failed to appreciate that the recent change of government in their country meant that they might no longer be regarded as genuine refugees.

The protest, which began on Wednesday, is the latest in a series of outbreaks of violence at Woomera.

Last month, three days of rioting left 21 security guards injured and caused more than $1m in damage - and that followed similar unrest in November.

There are 1,000 asylum seekers, including many children, at Woomera, which is the most remote of Australia's network of six detention camps. Some are there for up to five years, but most are detained for no more than a few months.

Immigration minister Phil Ruddock
"It's not appropriate for parents to put their children's lives at risk"
Amnesty International's Graham Thorn
"The government has announced a freeze on processing applications"
See also:

20 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australia unmoved by migrants' strike
18 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Hunger strike at Australian camp
20 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Asylum escape foiled
19 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia's detention centre in the desert
28 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia boat children inquiry
31 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia defends asylum stance
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