Australia Under Pressure to Free Child Migrants
CANBERRA (Reuters) - By Belinda Goldsmith - The Australian government came under mounting pressure Tuesday not to detain children in its controversial camps for illegal immigrants after several teenagers sewed up their lips during a hunger strike.
More than 200 Afghan detainees, including 36 aged under 18, entered the seventh day of a hunger strike Tuesday at Woomera, the biggest and most isolated camp, to protest the time to process refugee claims.
Some 64, including one teen-ager, had sewn up their lips -- although officials said many had used just a single cotton stitch.
In the past, processing of refugee claims has ranged from months to years and Afghans now face the added uncertainty of the government last month freezing their applications because the situation in Afghanistan (news - web sites) remained unclear.
Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said the protest -- the latest in a series of demonstrations and escapes at Woomera -- would not change official decisions, nor the policy to detain all illegal immigrants in secure camps to assess their cases.
Most Australians were repulsed by the hunger strikers' self-mutilation but agreed this should not pressure the government into changing its widely supported detention policy.
But the latest protest has raised doubts about the conditions in which detainees, including children, are held.
``Notwithstanding the popular support the government has for its handling of its issues, many Australians do care about how asylum seekers are being treated,'' said an editorial in The Age.
Three teenagers, aged 12, 14, and 15, were taken to hospital at the weekend suffering from dehydration, having sewn up their lips. After treatment, they were returned to the camp.
Six detainees, including two minors, were treated at the camp or hospital Monday after drinking disinfectant and shampoo.
An Immigration Department spokeswoman said 18 of the 202 hunger strikers at Woomera, which houses about 850 mostly Middle Eastern and Afghan asylum seekers, were receiving medical treatment for dehydration Tuesday.
At another camp for illegal immigrants, Curtin in Western Australia, police were this week investigating allegations that a five-year-old boy was sexually assaulted by three detainees.
``Once again the policy of detention of children is exposed for its inhumanity because it puts the innocent in an unnecessarily vulnerable position,'' said an editorial in The Canberra Times.
Under public pressure, Ruddock agreed to an independent assessment of conditions at Woomera, located in desert 475 km (295 miles) north of Adelaide, by a group of psychiatrists, academics, former politicians and non-government organizations.
``The group has gone there today to talk to detainee delegates,'' a spokesman for Ruddock told Reuters.
The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commissioner, Sev Ozdowski, also announced an immediate investigation as part of a national inquiry into children in immigration detention.
Ozdowski said Australia may have breached human rights conventions which say child detention is a last resort measure.
``Families cannot function normally in prolonged detention center situations and the stress apparently is impacting on children,'' he told Australian radio.
The opposition Labor party supports mandatory detention but has called on the government to lift the veil of secrecy about what goes on in the nation's six camps, which now house about 2,140 detainees.
``On an on-going basis, medical services in detention centers should be provided by independent medical professionals who are free to publicly report on detention center issues,'' Labor's immigration spokeswoman Julia Gillard said in a statement.