Detainee children 'in suicide pact'
By Grant Holloway
WOOMERA, Australia (CNN) -- Lawyers representing detainees at Australia's remote Woomera detention center say that as many as 15 unaccompanied children held at the camp have forged a suicide pact.
Paul Boylan, of the Woomera Lawyer's Group, told CNN Monday that one of his group's lawyers spoke with the children on Sunday night about the suicide threat.
Boylan said the information had been passed on to South Australian state authorities.
The children, who do not have parents staying with them in the camp, are reported to be aged from 12 to 17.
The lawyer who spoke to the children, Rob McDonald, said they were threatening to take their lives because they wanted to get out of the Woomera camp, which holds about 800 mainly Middle Eastern asylum seekers, and this was the only way they could achieve this.
"Various methods have been mentioned – sharp implements, jumping off the razor wire and ingesting some substances," McDonald told The Australian newspaper.
Australia's Prime Minister John Howard dismissed the suicide pact Monday, saying such threats were commonplace.
Speaking before departing for a trip to the United States and Indonesia, Howard said people in particular circumstances "often make threats and I think it's important people in my position understand that."
He said Australia would not be modifying its stance on mandatory detention for all illegal immigrants, including children, adding the tough policy was proving successful in deterring some asylum seekers from arriving at Australian shores.
But Boylan said the extreme action at Woomera over the past two weeks was having an impact despite the unyielding stance of the Australian government.
He said there had been a ground swell of support for the detainees from "caring Australians" that was continuing to gain momentum.
Over the weekend hundreds of protesters gathered in Australia to show solidarity with nearly 200 Afghan asylum seekers who are on their twelfth day of a hunger strike.
One of the asylum seekers was injured on Saturday when he jumped from the roof of a building onto a razor wire fence at the Woomera detention center.
He was part of a group who staged a violent protest at the camp, located under the baking desert sun 475 kilometers (295 miles) north of Adelaide.
In recent days, other detainees have sewed their lips together, drank antiseptic and even tried to hang themselves to protest at the long application process to enter Australia and the condition of the centers.
Australia's immigration minister is standing firm on the policy, already slammed by the United Nations and human rights groups. 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 boat people -- to show more compassion.
Howard has so far refused calls to speed up the immigration process -- which can take up to three years. He has also defended the conditions at the camps, which are deliberately harsh to deter others from trying to sneak into the country.
Around 8,000 asylum seekers, mainly from the Middle East and Afghanistan, 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 and Melbourne in sympathy for the Woomera detainees, some 35 of whom still had their mouths symbolically sewn shut with a strand of thread.
Woomera houses mainly Afghan and Middle Eastern inmates.
Around 200 people demonstrated outside the Maribyrnonga detention center in the southern city where dozens of asylum seekers and visa overstayers have staged a sympathy hunger strike.
In Sydney, 200 activists rallied outside the Villawood detention center and detainees there said they would also start to refuse food and water. Both rallies were peaceful.
The hunger strikes have already spread to the Curtin refugee camp in Western Australia, as the government's detention policy becomes an international embarrassment.
The mainly Afghan hunger strikers are growing increasingly weak as dehydration and temperatures around 40 C (104 F) take their toll, lawyers representing them said.
Four children taking part in the hunger strikes are now hospitalized in Woomera Hospital for "medical observation," an Immigration Department spokesman told The Associated Press, while five are still participating.
The Democrats, Australia's third political force, and the environmental Greens have called for Woomera's closure.
Saturday was Australia Day, commemorating the country's colonization by the British in 1788, and commentators urged politicians to remember the nation was founded on immigration.
At Woomera security guards on Saturday night ordered the media to move out of sight, with an Australian Broadcasting Corp journalist arrested.
The government's hard line, and a policy of intercepting all new boat people 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 the opposition Center left Labor, which had previously backed the policy, on Saturday urging the government to free detained children.
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