Tuesday January 29 4:08 AM ET
Refugee Suicide Deadline Passes at Australian Camp
By Sophie Hares
WOOMERA, Australia (Reuters) - A suicide deadline set by a group of 11 teenagers at a camp for asylum seekers in the Australian desert came and went Tuesday with no news of their fate.
Afghan and Middle Eastern detainees at the Woomera detention center have tried to hang themselves, drunk disinfectant and sewn up their lips to protest at the months, and sometimes years, it takes to process refugee claims.
Some 200 detainees have been on a hunger strike for the last two weeks.
Lawyer Rob McDonald, representing the asylum seekers, said a 16-year-old Iraqi youth tried to kill himself overnight by hanging himself on a fence but guards intervened.
He said a group of 11 Afghan teenagers, aged 12 to 17, remained committed to a pledge to commit suicide if they were not removed from Woomera by 5 p.m. (1:30 a.m. EST) Tuesday and tension in the camp housing about 900 asylum seekers was running high.
``It's terribly strict. After 5 p.m. unfortunately it will be a matter of waiting to see what happens,'' McDonald said.
He told reporters the hunger strikers were awaiting further talks with a committee set up by the government to act as an intermediary between detainees and authorities.
Protests, often violent, have become increasingly frequent at Woomera, the largest of the country's six camps, which is located in barren, treeless desert about 475 km (295 miles) north of Adelaide and lies just outside a small township.
Tuesday children from the camp threw notes reading ``Visa'' and ``Freedom'' as their school bus sped past reporters at a road block set up about 500 meters outside.
A member of the government-appointed panel, Paris Aristotle, said closing Woomera as a full-time detention center and only using it for emergencies, such as when a large group of asylum seekers arrived, would end the continuing unrest.
``It's obviously a very difficult and, for detainees, certainly perceived as a very harsh environment for them to be detained in for long periods,'' Aristotle told Australian radio.
Minor political parties, the Greens and the Australian Democrats, have joined the call to close Woomera, located in a former rocket range the size of England where summer temperatures soar to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees F) or more.
But Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said he would not be pressured into a snap decision by the protest, even though the turmoil is now spreading to other camps.
``I do not think it's appropriate that the decision should be taken in the context of duress,'' Ruddock told reporters.
However he said the situation would be reviewed if the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia illegally continued to fall and after the opening of a new facility in coming months.
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the protests would not sway the government.
``Never, never deal with Australians by threatening them. You can threaten a lot of countries but you never want to threaten Australians,'' Downer told Reuters in an interview in London.
Australia has one of the world's harshest immigration policies, detaining all illegal immigrants in secure camps. The policy is supported by the main opposition party, Labor.
But the government toughened its stance further last August when it started to divert all asylum seekers to Pacific nations. Conservative Prime Minister John Howard won a third term in November after his tough stand on boat people was applauded by many Australians angry as the numbers of Afghan, Middle Eastern and Sri Lankan boat people rose to nearly 5,000 a year.
Woomera service station owner Dave Kirby said residents of a township of 1,300 people near the camp were out of patience.
``Sympathy for them? None, none at all. They get better food and stuff then we get in town,'' Kirby told Reuters.
Actually I was in a late stage of planning a 5 weeks long vacation to Australia for September- October this year. This is now totally out of question. I will not spend a dime of my money in a country with such a nazi government.
The Metro might be the Sub(optimal)way