Australia Refugee Protests Spread in Camps, Streets
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Hunger strikes by protesting asylum seekers spread on Sunday to a fourth Australian detention center while refugee activists took to the streets of the country's two largest cities to call for greater compassion.
An Immigration Department spokesman said 17 people at the Port Hedland refugee camp in Western Australia began to refuse food and water in a copycat protest to mirror 12 days of turmoil at another camp in the baking heat of the interior.
"Seventeen detainees are currently participating in a hunger strike at Port Hedland," he said.
Four of Australia's six detention centers for illegal immigrants are now in the grip of disturbances since around 200 at Woomera, 295 miles north of Adelaide, began sewing their lips shut and trying to commit suicide 12 days ago.
A refugee lawyer, Paul Boylan, told local media 370 people at Woomera were now on hunger strike but officials put it at 181.
The mainly Afghan and Middle Eastern asylum seekers are protesting at the months it takes to process refugee claims.
The Immigration Department spokesman said an illegal immigrant who had thrown himself onto a razor wire fence at Woomera on Saturday was being monitored in hospital.
He added that three children had been taken to hospital overnight for observation as the inmates continued to refuse food and water. Some have tried to hang themselves and others have swallowed shampoo and painkillers.
TRICKLE TO SOME, TIDE TO OTHERS
The government's hard line, and a policy of intercepting all new boatpeople at sea with warships and shipping them to camps it has paid Pacific islands to set up, enjoys broad public support.
But the first cracks have begun to appear, with opposition center-left Labor, which had previously backed the policy, on Saturday urging the government to free detained children.
Around 8,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Australia over the past two years, a trickle according to the United Nations.
But the island continent of just 19.3 million people also takes 10,000 refugees a year formally resettled under a U.N. program and another 50,000 permanent migrants.
Refugee groups on Sunday demonstrated in Sydney, Melbourne and Port Hedland in sympathy with the detainees at Woomera, 34 of whom still had their mouths sewn with a strand of thread.
"This just shows the level of desperation, these people just got nothing to lose, they are throwing themselves on razor wire," said Judy McVey of the Refugee Action Collective in Melbourne.
Police said 300 people tried to break a perimeter fence at the Maribyrnonga detention center in Melbourne where dozens of asylum seekers and visa overstayers are also on hunger strike.
In Sydney, another 200 activists rallied peacefully outside the Villawood detention center. The immigration spokesman said detainees there were not refusing water or food.
And the Australian Broadcasting Corp said a noisy demonstration took place outside Port Hedland.
The hunger strikes have already spread to the Curtin refugee camp, also in Western Australia, as a policy of detaining all illegal immigrants becomes an international embarrassment.
The government has refused to bow to what it calls moral blackmail and insists it will not be at fault if people die.
But pressure has been mounting on conservative Prime Minister John Howard, who won re-election in November partly on a tough stand against boatpeople.
The Democrats, Australia's third political force, and the environmental Greens called for the closure of Woomera.
Saturday was Australia Day, commemorating the colonization of the Australian continent by the British in 1788.
"The Australia I wanted to celebrate yesterday is a fair-minded, tolerant place, where everyone's given a fair go," wrote Sue Williams in Sunday's Sydney Morning Herald.
"Instead, I found myself in a country that a few politicians, through a pungent blend of myopia, thirst for power, idiocy and breathtaking lack of any sort of compassion whatsoever, have been allowed carelessly to poison and trash."
At Woomera, where around 900 illegal immigrants are housed in a camp set up on a former rocket range, security guards on Saturday night ordered the media to move out of sight.
An Australian Broadcasting Corp journalist was arrested.