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Immigrants Begin Hunger Strike at Australian Detention Center - 2002-01-21

Australian officials are threatening to take some children away from their parents at an immigration detention center. Several children have had their lips sewn together as part of a hunger strike staged by scores of asylum applicants from Afghanistan.

The latest protest against Australia's immigration system began last week. It is not clear how many asylum seekers at the Woomera detention facility are now on a hunger strike, but officials estimate several hundred are refusing food. A banner reading "Freedom or death" is hanging inside the dusty, desert detention center, where dozens of protesters have sewn their lips together.

Australian officials confirmed Monday that at least three children between the ages of 12 and 15 were treated at a hospital to have stitches removed from their mouths.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock says children involved in the protest may be separated from their parents. "Well, I mean you have to look at it in terms of what is in the best interests of the child and if parents are behaving in ways which put the lives of children at risk, we have some responsibility to act," he says. "We don't do so capriciously, and in relation to the response that you would take, we would work with the relevant state protection authorities in relation to those issues."

A lawyer representing a group of Woomera detainees says their state of mind has reached a point where they could kill themselves.

Many at Woomera arrived illegally from Afghanistan seeking asylum status from the harsh Taleban government. But many do not now qualify as refugees since the fall of the Taleban in favor of an internationally-backed interim administration.

The Australian government has repeatedly said it will not be influenced by the sometimes violent protests staged by the illegal immigrants in recent months. Australia automatically detains in camps anyone who arrives in the country illegally while the immigration claims are investigated.

Many of the detainees feel increasingly frustrated by the slow pace of the asylum process. The government says the security checks have become more time consuming since the terrorist attacks of September 11.

Canberra also stepped up efforts this year to deter illegal immigrants from reaching Australia's shores. The government is turning away boats and arranging for the asylum seekers to be housed on the Pacific island nation of Nauru and Papua New Guinea while their visa applications are assessed.