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Saturday, 26 January, 2002, 08:42 GMT
Australian hunger strike spreads
Woomera detention centre
Detainees at Woomera want to be moved elsewhere
Protests by asylum seekers angry at their conditions of detention in Australia have spread to a third camp, despite concessions from the government.

Our emotions are crushed. Most people are mentally sick

Asylum seeker

Five people are refusing food and water at the Curtin detention centre, 1,300 km (800 miles) north of Perth, in sympathy with protests at Woomera and Maribyrnong camps, said a spokesman for the Immigration Department.

Another five from Curtin, four Iranians and an Afghan, were admitted to hospital after swallowing antiseptic.

A man from Woomera is receiving treatment after apparently failing to escape over the centre's perimeter fence.

The man became caught in barbed wire as about 200 refugees, some armed with iron bars, climbed onto roofs and began chanting "visa, visa".

A camp guard was injured by a rock apparently thrown by a protester.

Phil Mercer, the BBC's correspondent at Woomera, says there are reports of detainees vomiting blood and suffering from kidney complaints.

Activists have warned the Australian Government that it is only a matter of time before a detainee dies.

No deal

The government has lifted a freeze on the processing of claims from Afghan detainees in a move aimed at easing the growing tension inside Woomera - a remote camp in the southern Australian desert.

Babak Ahmadi, who was released after 20 months in Woomera detention centre
Mr Ahmadi: "Our emotions are crushed"

The authorities also released about 20 Woomera detainees after their refugee claims were accepted.

But a negotiating team returned from Woomera to tell the government that the moves did not go far enough.

Inmates want to be moved to another facility that is less isolated, and where conditions are better.

Babak Ahmadi, a geologist from Iran who has been released after 20 months in Woomera, asked: "How can a person sit in detention in the middle of the desert for two years?

"Our emotions are crushed. Most people are mentally sick."

UN pressure

But Australian Prime Minister John Howard, re-elected last year after acting firmly against groups of mainly Afghan asylum-seekers, said his government's tough immigration policies will not be watered down by continued unrest at Woomera.

Two hundred and eleven people are now on hunger strike at the centre, 45 of whom have sewn their mouths shut.

Thirty-seven of the total are children. At least 15 of the protesters have tried to hang themselves; others have swallowed shampoo and painkillers.

Twenty-one detainees are also refusing food and drink at Maribyrnong in Melbourne.

Hunger strikers hospitalised
Some detainees have swallowed shampoo and painkillers
The UN refugee agency repeated on Friday that it is strongly opposed to Australia's detention of refugees.

"This whole mess... illustrates the dangers and pitfalls of detaining asylum seekers," said Kris Janowski, a spokesman for the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, mounting national outrage at the protest has led to the first cracks in the country's bipartisan approach to asylum seekers.

It says the leader of the Labor opposition party will say in a speech to mark Australia Day on Saturday: "It is just plain wrong to hold innocent children behind razor wire".

Detainees in the six camps spread around the country are locked up for months, even years, while the authorities decide whether they are genuine refugees.

According to Mr Howard, releasing them to live in the community would only encourage more asylum seekers to come to Australia.

Every year Australia takes in 10,000 refugees who are formally resettled by the United Nations and another 50,000 permanent migrants, mainly from Britain and New Zealand.

The BBC's Michael Peschardt
"Neither side is prepared to back down"

Seeking asylum
Is the Australian Government's action justified?
See also:

24 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australia lifts asylum claim freeze
24 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Australia's tough asylum policy
25 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Death watch in the outback
23 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australian asylum protest spreads
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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