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Asylum Seekers Attempt Suicide in Australia - 2002-01-24

Immigration authorities in Australia said at least three asylum seekers, including a 16-year-old boy, have tried to hang themselves in the Woomera detention center. It comes as 200, mainly Afghan asylum seekers, continue a hunger strike that entered its second week. Some have sewn their lips together as part of a protest over the time authorities are taking to assess visa applications and the conditions inside the remote desert camp.

Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said the two adults and a teenage boy found hanging from the ceiling with bedsheets had received treatment inside the camp. The minister said they were not seriously hurt, and had been put into isolation.

A refugee campaigner, however, claimed they were part of a group of 15 illegal migrants who tried to kill themselves. She said they had acted in frustration after having spent up to two years inside Woomera waiting for their claims for refugee status to be assessed, and she said it was only be a matter of time before someone inside the camp died.

The protest behind the razorwire fences here in the scorching heart of the south Australian desert has entered its ninth day. And the toll on those involved continues to rise. Earlier this week, seven men were taken to hospital after swallowing disinfectant and painkillers.

There is confusion about exactly how many detainees are part of the hunger strike. The federal government puts the figure at 212, including more than 30 children. Refugee advocates claim 400 are refusing food, almost half of the camp's residents, most of whom come from South Asia and the Middle East, including Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.

At least five children, who have been in Woomera without their parents, have been removed by immigration officials, who claimed they were in danger of being coerced in taking part in the protest by other detainees.

These protests have again focused attention on Australia's tough immigration policies but the authorities are standing firm and say they will not buckle under the pressure. The protesters insist they are not ready to back down either. Refugee advocates around Australia have become more vocal with noisy demonstration in Sydney and other major cities. The chaos inside Woomera has brought journalists and camera crew across the country as Australia faces up to this refugee emergency.

Australia admits thousands of refugees every year under authorized resettlement programs. But in the past six months the country has toughened its stance on illegal immigrants considered by the government to be queue jumpers.

Those intercepted at sea are sent to camps on the Pacific island-nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. This policy proved popular at the polls last November when conservative Prime Minister John Howard won a third term on the back of his uncompromising attitude toward asylum.