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Hunger Strike Expands Among Asylum Seekers in Australia - 2002-06-27


There is more trouble at Australia's notorious refugee detention center at Woomera. More asylum seekers at the remote desert facility have joined a hunger strike sparked by fears they will be forcibly sent home.

Australia's Immigration Department says children are among 164 detainees taking part in the four-day-old hunger strike. Four asylum seekers have sewn their lips together as the demonstration behind the razor-wire fences intensifies.

Refugee advocates claim there is widespread fear of deportation and desperation in the camp. They say some detainees are prepared to starve themselves to death.

Government officials say the hunger strikers have not made any demands. Officials think they are protesting threats by the government to begin forcibly repatriating Afghan detainees if they do not accept $1,000 to return home.

The government detains all asylum seekers who enter the country illegally while their applications for refugee status are processed. That can take three to five years. Most of the refugees are from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.

The protest is the largest since January. Then, more than 200 mainly Afghan migrants staged a 16-day hunger strike at Woomera over the time it takes to process asylum claims. That was followed by a break-out by 50 detainees in late March.

Prime Minister John Howard's conservative government tightened its policy on asylum seekers last year. He ordered the navy to divert boats carrying illegal asylum seekers to camps in the Pacific nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru. The camps, funded by Canberra, now hold about 1,400 people.

The government considers illegal immigrants "queue jumpers", trying to sneak in ahead of thousands of refugees applying for asylum through the United Nations in their home countries and refugee centers. Australia annually takes in 10,000 refugees granted U.N. refugee status.

Refugee groups insist the majority of the illegal asylum seekers are genuinely escaping persecution at home. Activists in Australia and overseas have harshly criticized the government's policy on illegal asylum seekers.