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Wednesday, 23 January, 2002, 14:01 GMT
Australian asylum protest spreads
Hunger striker hospitalised after drinking shampoo and painkillers
Seven of the asylum seekers were hospitalised
Hunger strikes among asylum seekers detained in Australia, some of whom have sewn their lips together, have spread to a second detention centre.

We have no hope, we have no future

Hunger-striking detainees
Fifty of more than 200 mainly Afghan asylum seekers hunger-striking at the remote Woomera centre have sewn their mouths shut in protest against a freeze on the processing of their claims.

The government ordered five children to be removed from the camp to protect them from inflicting on themselves a similar type of mutilation.

The controversy grew on Wednesday with the resignation of a senior adviser to the Australian Government on immigration in protest at the government's treatment of asylum seekers.

At least seven of the Woomera detainees were taken to hospital late on Tuesday after poisoning themselves.

And at least 25 asylum seekers at the Maribyrnong centre in the southern city of Melbourne have joined the strike.


The hospitalised protesters had swallowed a mixture of pain killers and shampoo after immigration officials started force-feeding those suffering dehydration - which had already led to the hospitalisation of three others.

Neville Roach, who chairs the Council for Multicultural Australia, quit his post "in sadness" saying compassion seemed to have been "thrown out the door" in the country's asylum policy.

While the detainees are protesting about the length of time taken to process their applications for asylum, Mr Roach targeted government rhetoric on the issue, saying it fuelled prejudice.

"The rhetoric has referred to asylum seekers as illegals, as queue jumpers, as people who would throw their children overboard in order to get entry into Australia and so on," he said.

Tough policy

In August Prime Minister John Howard's administration adopted a hard-line approach by turning away all asylum seekers who attempted to enter Australia by boat.

The policy was dramatically realised in the government's refusal to allow hundreds of mainly Afghan refugees to land that month, leaving them stranded on the Norwegian ship, the Tampa, in Australia's Indian Ocean.

Canberra then made a deal with several South Pacific islands to take unwanted asylum seekers in return for cash, which Australia called the "Pacific solution" and critics labelled "tropical gulags".

"I think the way in which the government has handled these issues - beginning I think with the Tampa - has tended to give comfort to the prejudiced side of human nature," Mr Roach told local media.


"We have no hope, we have no future," the detainees wrote in a letter published on Tuesday by the Sydney Morning Herald. "We only request the Australian people help us, otherwise we have no choice but to continue the hunger strike until the end of our life."

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock
Philip Ruddock: Refuses to be 'blackmailed' by the protesters
Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock has described the lip-sewing action as offensive and says the government will not be "blackmailed", arguing that the immigrants could always return home.

Human Rights Commissioner Sev Ozdowski has said he is concerned that Australia could be breaching international conventions on the treatment of children by detaining them in these camps.

The authorities, in turn, say they are concerned that the children are at risk from their parents who are mutilating them to gain sympathy.

The processing of asylum claims can take from months up to five years, during which time would-be immigrants are kept in detention centres.

The Australian Government has imposed a freeze on processing applications from about 2,000 Afghans after the Taleban regime fell last year.

The BBC's Louisa Lim says the debate has polarised Australia.

She says there is widespread support for the government's stance, but there are also many who fear the country's reputation is being damaged by the bad publicity.

A series of small protests and vigils are being held in cities around Australia.

The BBC's Emily Buchanan
"Many are resorting to hunger strikes and worse"
Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock
"I am very angry about some of the detainees"
The BBC's Red Harrison
"More than forty inmates have tried to poison or mutilate themselves""
See also:

23 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australia stands by asylum policy
23 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australian press criticises asylum stance
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
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