Refugee activists in Australia have demonstrated outside the immigration department in Sydney to mark the 35th day of a hunger strike by Chinese asylum seekers at the city's Villawood detention center. The followers of the Falun Gong movement have been refusing food since late March, to protest the deportation of asylum seekers to China. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.
Refugee campaigners say they have "grave concerns" for the health of the hunger strikers.
The Chinese man and three women have been refusing to eat for more than a month. They have told their supporters that the protest will not end until their demands are met.
They are demonstrating against the deportation of asylum seekers to China and the length of time they have spent in detention. It is believed that one of the detainees has been in custody for more than 3 years while his asylum claim is investigated.
As a show of support, a small but noisy group of activists gathered outside offices of the immigration department in Sydney, calling on the Australian government to urgently reconsider sending detainees back to China. Activists claim asylum seekers are likely to face mistreatment on their return.
Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition is hoping the hunger strikers will call off their protest.
"We've made it very clear that we'd like them to end the hunger strike, that we'll continue to support them regardless of whether they're on hunger strike or not," he said. "It's bad enough that they're hurt by the Australian government without hurting themselves in the process of trying to do something about it. But it really is a disgrace that people should have to resort to these kinds of methods to get justice from the Australian government."
Australian immigration officials have said they are closely monitoring the well-being of the hunger strikers. A spokeswoman said that failed asylum seekers were only deported when all avenues of appeal are exhausted.
The hunger strikers are members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, seeking asylum in Australia.
Their organization is banned in China and its practitioners have complained they are subject to persecution there. The Beijing government has labeled Falun Gong an evil cult that threatens society.
Australia detains most asylum seekers while their claims for refugee status are processed. The government says this strict policy has deterred many would-be refugees from traveling illegally to Australia.
Those arriving by boat, usually from Indonesia, are sent to an offshore processing centre on the South Pacific Island of Nauru.
Others are held in camps on the mainland, including the Villawood facility in Sydney where the hunger strike by Chinese detainees is entering its sixth week.
Australia re-settles about 13,000 refugees every year under official humanitarian programs.