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Australia: 11 Detainees Extend Suicide Threat - 2002-01-29

A deadline set by 11 child detainees who threatened a mass suicide at the Woomera immigration center at the south Australian desert has been extended by 24 hours. The boys had said they will throw themselves into razor wire fencing if their demands to be removed from the camp into foster care are not met. More than 250 illegal immigrants are on a hunger strike that entered its third week in a protest over the processing of refugee visas and conditions.

Lawyers representing the protesters say the threat of mass suicide by the Afghan teenagers is still serious and credible. A spokesman for the detainees inside the facility says the boys have given the authorities more time to respond to their demands.

Earlier this week the boys said they would poison themselves or jump from a roof onto razor wire fencing if they did not get what they wanted.

The authorities inside Woomera have put the group under increased observation. Negotiators appointed by the government have arrived as talks continue to find a settlement.

The Australian Prime Minister John Howard says his government is working to resolve the crisis inside Woomera. "Nobody likes what is occurring at present but there is no alternative. And we're working in a sensible way to try and talk to the people in the detention centers and to point out the futility of what is occurring and has been occurring over the past week or so," Mr. Howard said.

The young Afghans traveled to Australia without their parents to claim asylum. Like all other illegal migrants, children are detained until their applications are processed.

During this two-week stand off between the government and more than 200 hunger strikers, nine unaccompanied children have been taken from Woomera on safety grounds.

There have been repeated calls by refugee groups, opposition politicians and the Catholic Church for the Australian government to ease its stance on asylum and let children and women live in the community while their applications are investigated.

Australia's Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock has said a number of suspected ringleaders of the hunger strike are among 67 detainees now facing deportation. Mr. Ruddock said their claims to stay in Australia as refugees have been rejected.

Australia admits thousands of refugees each 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.

The Australia government has been urged to close the troubled Woomera camp by its own independent advisers on detention centers. Members of the immigration detention advisory group believe the country's new border controls have resulted in almost no asylum seekers reaching Australia and there is now space for the Woomera detainees at other, less remote facilities.