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Wednesday, 30 January, 2002, 06:53 GMT
Australian hunger strike ends
Protesters at Woomera
Not all of the protesters' demands have been met
A 15-day hunger strike staged by asylum seekers at a remote detention centre in Australia has ended, according to the country's Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock.

More than 240 asylum seekers - mainly Afghans - abandoned their protest after the government promised to treat their claims to asylum in a more transparent fashion.

The hunger strike at Woomera has been abandoned

Philip Ruddock, Immigration Minister
But the protesters' demand that they be moved to a less remote facility than Woomera, in the South Australian desert, has not been met.

Some of the hunger-strikers, who included children, had threatened to commit suicide, and many sewed their lips together or drank disinfectant as part of their protest.

"The hunger strike at Woomera has been abandoned. That is a very welcome development," Mr Ruddock said.


The agreement to end the protest followed negotiations with members of the government's Immigration Detention Advisory Group (IDAG).

Mr Ruddock had vowed not to respond to the asylum seekers' demands under duress, but on Tuesday he indicated that the detainees might be relocated after the IDAG suggested Woomera should be closed.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock
Ruddock: Camp may be scaled down

The IDAG had warned that unless the detainees were moved out of Woomera there was a risk of a "human tragedy of unknowable proportions".

The BBC's Sydney correspondent Phil Mercer said it was possible the detainees could be moved to a new site near Adelaide in South Australia, which is awaiting completion.

Growing criticism

It has been suggested that the Woomera site might be used only as an emergency overflow centre instead.

Mr Ruddock said: "Whatever approach you take, Woomera will be required for certain contingencies and quite possibly for holding other groups of people who have exhausted their asylum claim opportunities."

His comments came after church leaders and the Red Cross joined growing criticism of the government's policy of locking up all asylum seekers while their applications are considered.

Woomera detainee in hospital
Dozens had sewn their lips together

However, Prime Minister John Howard is still taking a strong line, saying Australia's policies on asylum seekers are correct.

Throughout the crisis, the government has insisted the mandatory detention of asylum seekers has deterred others from trying to reach Australia.

Since August 2001, the navy has intercepted boatloads of people seeking asylum who were mainly from Afghanistan and the Middle East.

They are either turned away or sent to processing camps on the Pacific Island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

The BBC's Phil Mercer in Woomera
"The future of Woomera is uncertain"
Australian immigration minister Philip Ruddock
"I'm glad it's been resolved"
Paul Boyland, lawyer for the detainees
"Both I and my group have been excluded from any negotiations"
See also:

24 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australia lifts asylum claim freeze
23 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australian asylum protest spreads
23 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australia stands by asylum policy
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