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Hunger Strike Continues at Australian Detention Center

Refugee groups say hundreds of asylum seekers, mostly from Afghanistan, have joined a hunger strike

Refugee groups say hundreds of asylum seekers, mostly from Afghanistan, have joined a hunger strike at an immigration detention center in Western Australia. The protestors are angry at the time it is taking for their refugee applications to be processed and many fear being sent home.

As many as 700 detainees are refusing to eat in the Curtin immigration camp near the town of Derby in Western Australia. The remote facility holds single men who arrived illegally to apply for refugee status.

Refugee advocacy groups say the hunger strikers are complaining that it takes too long for their requests for asylum to be dealt with and that Australian authorities have refused to explain why. Other detainees have had their applications turned down.

The hunger strike began last week, and refugee activists say the protesters will soon refuse water if immigration officials refuse to meet with them.

The inmates at Curtin also are worried about a new agreement between Canberra and Kabul, which allows Canberra to forcibly repatriate Afghans who fail to qualify as refugees.

One hunger-striker, Assad, says the mood in the camp is growing bleak. "Because they have come from a war-torn country and the people that have come in here, some are rejected. They have been told that 'you are not recognized as a refugee' and the overall situation is very rough now because the people are very sad and they're very exhausted now, they're hopeless," Assad stated.

Australian immigration officials say the protest is much smaller, with about 30 detainees "engaged in voluntary starvation” while a larger group has been protesting in the camp’s main compound. An immigration department spokeswoman says the camp remains calm and the protest peaceful.

Australia detains asylum seekers who try to enter the country illegally while their claims for refugee status are investigated. Over the past year, there has been a surge in illegal arrivals, most making a dangerous journey by boat from Indonesia. Most of the new arrivals are from Iraq, Iran, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

The government’s main detention facility, at Christmas Island, is overflowing, leading Canberra to re-open the Curtin center last year. More than 40 asylum seekers died in December when their boat wrecked in rough seas at Christmas Island.

Australia grants visas to about 13,000 refugees each year under international humanitarian programs.