Lawyers representing some of the hunger strikers inside the Woomera detention facility in the South Australian desert say a group of children is threatening a mass suicide. The government says it will not back down in the face of the two-week old protests, which have spread to other immigration camps. The Woomera detainees, who entered the country illegally, want their applications for asylum to be processed in a faster and more transparent fashion and to be moved to a less remote center.
The threat by 11 children inside the camp to commit suicide was relayed by one of their lawyers, Robert McDonald, who says the boys, aged between 12 and 17, had made plans to throw themselves onto razor wire fencing if their demands were not met. They want to be released into foster care while the immigration authorities decide whether to let them stay in Australia or to deport them.
Since the demonstrations began, nine children who were detained without their parents have been taken out of the facility into care.
A spokesman for Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock has cast doubt on the validity of the suicide threats. He says refugee lawyers had made similar pronouncements in the past, which had turned out to be false. But refugee lawyer Robert McDonald has accused the authorities of doing nothing while the situation inside Woomera gets more desperate. "It's a real and very scary threat that not even the Family and Youth Services [government department] are taking seriously at the moment. It's very disturbing that nobody is taking this very seriously," says Mr. McDonald. "It seems like people are getting very upset and they're all willing to die, including the children. They're talking about jumping onto razor wire, harming themselves with sharp implements or ingesting some sort of fluid."
The government says 259 detainees are now refusing to eat inside Woomera. Refugee groups claim the figure is nearer 400. Most are from Afghanistan, who fled during the five years of the Taleban rule.
A letter written by one 27-year-old detainee said that after so many days of protest they'd been destroyed psychologically and damaged physically. Some have tried to hang themselves, others have drunk disinfectant and swallowed painkillers.
The protests have continued at detention centers in western Australia and Victoria, as asylum seekers refused food in solidarity with those inside Woomera, the biggest and most remote of the camps.
Every year 10,000 refugees are granted permission to stay in Australia under international resettlement programs. Illegal migrants reaching Australia without the proper documentation and claiming refugee status are automatically locked away until their claims are investigated.
The process usually takes a few months but can last up to five years due to a lengthy appeals process for those who have been rejected.
The government of conservative Prime Minister John Howard has refused to give in to what it calls "moral intimidation" by the protesters and has insisted it will not be responsible if people die.