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Refugees sew lips shut in desert camp

December rioting at the remote camps preceded the desperate protest made on Friday  

CANBERRA, Australia - Dozens of refugees have sewn their lips together at a detention center in outback Australia in protest at the time it takes applications for asylum to be processed.

An Immigration Department spokeswoman said some detainees at the country's biggest and most isolated camp, Woomera, located in the South Australian desert, began a hunger strike on Wednesday and urged others to join in.

"They are upset at the time it is taking to process visa applications and now 58 detainees have sewn their lips together," the spokeswoman told Reuters news agency.

"But this kind of action will make no difference to the visa processing system. It will not help their applications."

Public support

Australia has one of the world's toughest regimes for dealing with illegal immigrants, automatically detaining people arriving illegally or overstaying visas in secure camps while their visas are assessed which can take months or years with appeals.

This mandatory detention of asylum seekers, including women and children, and a recent government policy of turning away boats carrying asylum seekers, diverting them to Pacific island nations, has attracted fierce criticism from human rights groups.

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But the government remains resolute that it will decide who comes to Australia -- and it has overwhelming public support, with resentment over the number of mainly Middle Eastern boat people rising to 5,000 a year, from just a few hundred five years ago.

Over 2,000 people are currently in detention in Australia's six camps although the number has fallen since last August when the government toughened its stance and started diverting boats.

Woomera is the country's largest camp and currently houses 863 mostly Middle Eastern asylum seekers who arrived illegally.

Hardened stance

Last month authorities struggled to quell three nights of rioting at Woomera when up to 300 detainees went on the rampage.

The spokeswoman said this week's protest had not turned violent and none of the detainees had needed medical treatment although several had attempted to harm themselves.

But she said one guard at the camp needed medical treatment after detainees hurled rocks at him as he tried to stop one of the migrants from harming himself.

The director of the Catholic welfare oorganizationCentacare, Dale West, accused the government of deliberately slowing down processing of visa applications since winning its third election last November, aided by its hardline against illegal immigrants.

"Since the election there's been a hardening of the position when it comes to the conditions at Woomera and I'd suggest a marked slowdown in processing applications," West told ABC radio.

"This is in part a reason why people feel that it is necessary to take the sort of action they are taking now."


• Riots enter third day
December 19, 2001



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