Some Australia asylum seekers will have lip stitches removed, others giving up hunger strike


Monday, January 28th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ Groups of asylum seekers being held in Australian detention centers agreed Monday to remove stitches from their lips and to abandon a five-day hunger strike.

Also, four children pulled out of what their lawyer said was a suicide pact between mostly Afghan children without parents or guardians at the remote Woomera detention center in the Australian Outback.

Yet refugees at other detention centers across Australia joined the hunger strikes, with 16 immigrants at the Port Hedland detention center and four at the Curtin camp in Western Australia state refusing food, the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs said Monday.

About 370 detainees are on hunger strike at Woomera, including some children, according to refugee lawyers, but the government said the total is 259. Most are Afghans, and dozens have sewed their lips together.

The protesters want the government to speed up their asylum claims and move them out of Woomera.

Late Monday, the detainees said some people would remove stitches from their lips out of respect for the Immigration Detention Advisory Group, which is trying to solve the crisis.

Also, 22 detainees at Melbourne's Maribyrnong detention center abandoned their hunger strike Monday after five days without food, refugee advocates said.

``They felt the protest was the only thing they could do to show support for the detainees at Woomera,'' said Judy McVey, spokeswoman for the Refugee Action Collective, who added that Maribyrnong is ``not like the concentration camps around the rest of the country.''

About 175 Woomera detainees have not eaten for nearly two weeks. They grow increasingly weak as dehydration and temperatures up to 104 take their toll.

Eleven mostly Afghan children at Woomera have made a pact to commit suicide unless they are released, a lawyer representing them said Monday.

``Their condition is very stressed, very wound up, they are wanting an immediate response from (the Immigration Department) and they are getting more and more agitated to act,'' lawyer Rob McDonald said.

``They're talking about jumping onto razor wire, harming themselves with sharp implements or ingesting some sort of fluid,'' he said of the children, who are between the ages of 14 and 17.

Four other children pulled out of the deal because they believed the plan would negatively influence their applications for asylum, McDonald said.

McDonald said some of the children had been granted temporary protection visas, but were still waiting to be released from the center, a former missile testing base on a hot, dusty plain 1,120 miles west of Sydney.

Two sympathizers were arrested early Monday when they entered Woomera during a national 48-hour hunger strike organized by human rights groups and refugee advocates.

Peter Lawrence and Tracey Bretag said they wanted to tell the detainees that people supported them.

``We're going to try and get through, I don't know what that means,'' Bretag said, holding a sign that said, ``You are not alone.''

Bretag was later charged with failing to obey the directions of a federal officer. Lawrence was not charged.

Their arrest followed Sunday demonstrations at detention centers in Melbourne, Sydney and Port Hedland.

Three people were arrested at Port Hedland for unlawful assembly and will appear in court Tuesday.

Opposition Labor Party leader Simon Crean called for Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock to let an independent committee take over the detention centers. The Catholic Church supported that call.

However, Prime Minister John Howard has refused to soften the policy of detaining all illegal immigrants until their asylum applications are processed _ which can take three years.

About 3,000 illegal immigrants, mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and southern Asia are detained in Australia.

``I want to make it perfectly clear that the government will not be altering its current policy,'' Howard said.

The situation likely will be discussed during Howard's weeklong visit to New York beginning Tuesday. He is scheduled to address the World Economic Forum and meet with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.