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Iraqis Continue Hunger Strike at Australian Immigration Center


Iraqi asylum seekers on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island are continuing a hunger strike Saturday following a similar protest at an immigration detention facility in Sydney earlier this week. Detainees are angry about delays in the time it is taking for their asylum claims to be dealt with. They are also concerned the Australian government could suspend applications from Iraq following a recent decision to freeze the processing of asylum requests from Sri Lankans and Afghans.

Five Iraqi men are refusing to eat in protest at their continued incarceration at the Christmas Island detention camp, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean.

The small group is camped out on a sports field within the center with banners reading "No Life Without Freedom."

The Iraqis were intercepted by the Australian navy and transferred to Christmas Island in early December.

Refugee advocates say Canberra's decision to freeze asylum applications from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan for up to six months has raised concern among other detainees that their countries could be added to the list.

Government officials say they are reassessing Australia's approach to those fleeing Afghanistan and Sri Lanka because of improved security in both nations.

But Ian Rintoul, from the Refugee Action Coalition, says Australia's treatment of asylum seekers has become as uncompromising as the policies pursued by the former conservative Prime Minister John Howard. His administration locked up women and children in camps across the country.

Rintoul claims that some detainees on Christmas Island are at breaking point. "Many people are waiting, you know, eight months, nine months," he said. "The longest person is 15 months on Christmas Island."

"It is far too long to be waiting for any kind of decision. That length of time is creating all the kinds of problems we saw under the Howard government, you know, the anxiety. The mental health problems are re-emerging on Christmas Island as they did in Woomera and Baxter and Port Hedland," he added.

The hunger strike on Christmas Island began Friday. It follows a similar protest by Iraqi inmates at the Villawood immigration center in Sydney, which ended earlier this week.

Refugee campaigners say tensions on Christmas Island are worsening and the facility is now exceeding capacity.

Almost 270 asylum seekers have arrived at the remote territory in the past three days. Detention centers on the Australian mainland are also nearing full capacity.

Australia's conservative opposition accuses the government of losing control of the country's borders, a charge senior ministers reject.

Australia resettles about 13,000 refugees through official humanitarian schemes each year.

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