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Detainees on Hunger Strike at Australian Immigration Center

Detainees at one of Australia's largest immigration detention centers have gone on a hunger strike to protest the country's immigration laws. Earlier this year, the government said asylum seekers would only be detained as a "last resort," and these detainees are angry that they have not been released. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

Refugee advocacy groups say that more 100 detainees at the Villawood detention center are refusing to eat as part of a widespread protest. Australia's Immigration Department says those figures are exaggerated and that fewer than 50 inmates have joined the hunger strike.

It began on Saturday at Australia's largest mainland detention center, in Sydney.

Refugee activists say the majority of those taking part are asylum seekers, but that detainees who face deportation have joined in.

Earlier this year, the new Labor government announced an overhaul of the immigration system. The practice of jailing illegal entrants while their asylum petitions are processed was largely dismantled. The government said they would be detained only as a last resort.

Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition says the hunger strikers at the Villawood facility demand to know why they are still in custody.

"The minister has made various statements about the changes to detention, talking about using detention as a last resort and announcing that their preference would be to find, you know, community detention arrangements or for people to be able to live in the community while their visa applications were being processed," Rintoul said. "But for people in detention nothing has really changed."

An immigration department spokesman declined to comment on individual cases.

Previously, though, the government has said that mandatory detention would apply only to those who pose a health or security risk or have repeatedly breached their visa conditions.

In a statement, the protesters, from a range of countries including China, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, urged the government to end the "indignity" of their incarceration.

Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has described conditions at the Villawood center as "a disgrace" and recommended that it be demolished.

Australia accepts about 13,000 refugees every year under official humanitarian programs.