Refugee camp children sew their lips in protest

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The Independent Online

"We want freedom or die," read the handwritten note smuggled out from Woomera, an immigration detention centre in the South Australian desert where three children were found yesterday to have joined about 70 adults who have sewn their lips together in a hunger strike by Afghan asylum-seekers.

"We want freedom or die," read the handwritten note smuggled out from Woomera, an immigration detention centre in the South Australian desert where three children were found yesterday to have joined about 70 adults who have sewn their lips together in a hunger strike by Afghan asylum-seekers.

Australia's Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, threatened to remove children at Woomera from their parents after the incident, which involved boys aged 12, 14, and 15. They were taken to hospital to have the stitches extracted and were suffering from dehydration. Another boy received medical treatment after drinking disinfectant.

Nearly 200 people – including 30 aged under 18 – have been refusing food and water for a week in protest at conditions in the camp and the government's decision to freeze Afghan refugee applications after the fall of the Taliban. The authorities have not tried forcibly to remove the stitches of the 70 adult protesters.

The hunger strike is the latest in a series of disturbances at the centre, which opened two years ago near the site of a former British rocket-testing range. There have been several mass escape attempts, and last month 21 buildings were set alight in three nights of rioting.

Mr Ruddock said children might be removed in cases "where parents may not be fulfilling their proper obligations as parents to their children". Paul Boylan, a lawyer who represents asylum-seekers, said of the protesters: "They are in limbo, they are not being processed and the conditions are foul."

The camp is situated 320 miles north-west of Adelaide, in the middle of the Outback, far from prying eyes. Half a mile from the dusty township of Woomera, the highway ends abruptly at a barrier where signs warn of dire penalties for entry. Beyond the unmanned security gate lies a grim sight: a high metal fence topped with razor wire and floodlights.

Inside the compound, amid a desolate landscape of saltbush and parched brown earth, are rows of concrete huts in which shadowy figures move around lethargically. The midsummer desert heat is unforgiving and swarms of flies cling with voracious persistence.

Australia is the only country that mandatorily detains all illegal immigrants, and Woomera is the most controversial of its six detention centres. The area is so sparsely populated that it was deemed a perfect location for the British rocket range. Not far away, at Maralinga, Britain exploded atomic bombs in the 1950s.

There have been eight fire-related incidents at Woomera since John Howard's government was re-elected last November after a crackdown on boat people. Ministers denounced last month's riots as criminally motivated. Refugee support groups said they reflected desperation.

Television cameras were invited inside to film the burnt-out buildings as part of a propaganda war being waged by Canberra. The government has grown increasingly sensitive about its international standing since its refusal last year to allow 434 Afghans rescued from shipwreck by a Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, to land in Australia.

Detainees at Woomera – mainly from central Asia and the Middle East – have few friends in the nearby township, where locals share the public hostility fuelled by the government's demonisation of boat people as queue-jumpers and potential terrorists.

The town was founded in 1947 to service the rocket range and later the Nurrungar satellite tracking station, jointly operated by Australia and the United States. That history is recorded in a museum and missile park.

While Woomera is proud of its past, it detests its latest role as a service town for the detention centre, although the latter has provided new job opportunities since the last American personnel left in 2000.

Roz St George, who used to clean at the centre and now works in the museum's souvenir shop, said: "The detainees complain about their living conditions, but they've got heating, air-conditioning, computers, videos. I wish my mother, an elderly woman on a pension, was cared for as well as they are."

She added: "You can't convince me none of these people are a threat to national security. It was the World Trade Centre; it could be the Sydney Opera House next. They hate Australians and the women officers get abused for wearing shorts. Who do they think they are? This is not the Middle East."

Dave Kirby, the heavily tattooed owner of a nearby service station, said that he often feared for his family. "It's pretty hairy, and the trouble never really stops," he said. "You walk out at night and hear howling and shouting, blood-curdling screams that make your hair stand on end."

There is a palpable sense of alienation and despair. The asylum-seekers are treated like criminals, incarcerated in an isolated, inhospitable environment. Yet most people at Woomera are eventually granted refugee status, recognised as victims of persecution and injustice. The paradox is profoundly disturbing.

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