- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 29, 2002

SYDNEY, Australia A group of children at a remote detention camp in the Australian Outback threatened to begin killing themselves today if they are not set free, lawyers said yesterday.
The threat came from 11 unaccompanied Afghan children who have been held at the Woomera detention camp in southern Australia, home to some of them for more than a year.
Lawyers said the children had threatened to commit suicide at 5 p.m. (2 a.m. EST) if they are not released into foster care while their applications for political asylum are being processed.
"They are considering jumping into razor wire or ingesting a poisonous substance," Robert McDonald, an attorney for the children told reporters at the scene.
Four Iraqi children withdrew from the suicide pact yesterday, but 11 Afghan children said they planned to go ahead with the threat.
Australian officials said today it will deport from the strife-bound Woomera detention center almost 70 asylum seekers, some believed to be ringleaders of the the isolated facility's hunger strike.
The deportation orders were revealed as the protest by detainees continued into a second week.
The crisis comes as an embarrassment for Prime Minister John Howard, who is slated to attend an economic conference in New York later this week.
But Foreign Minister Alexander Downer bluntly defended his country's hard-line position on asylum seekers yesterday and said it would not bow to the threat of hunger strikes and suicide pacts.
In an interview with Reuters news agency, Mr. Downer said Australia was abiding by international law in its treatment of the asylum seekers and warned that protests at four detention centers including the death pact by children in Woomera would only harden public opinion against them.
"Nothing is making Australians angrier than these people who, by making threats in detention centers, are trying to circumvent our immigration laws," Mr. Downer said.
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.
During the past two weeks, hundreds of demonstrators around the country gathered to protest against the treatment of asylum seekers.
Carrying placards that read "Oz Have Compassion" and "It's never OK to imprison children," some supporters yesterday tried to tear down fences outside the Maribyrnong detention center in Melbourne, while in Sydney a large crowd marched behind a coffin carried by protesters wearing the mask of Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock.
About 175 Woomera detainees have not eaten for nearly two weeks. As dehydration and temperatures up to 104 take their toll, the detainees grow increasingly weak.
The protests by asylum seekers have won a measure of sympathy, in sharp contrast to public sentiment last year, when 433 refugees rescued at sea by a Norwegian freighter the "Tampa" were prohibited by the government from being offloaded onto Australian soil.
"The Tampa refugees were out of sight and unseen, but here [at Woomera] we have faces, cases, lots of visibility. It's a more precise, Gandhian style of protest, and the public empathizes with the plight of being locked up for months in the middle of the desert," said Hamish McDonald, international editor of the Sydney Morning Herald.
"And the fact that New Zealand has taken in many of the refugees from the Tampa and found them to be genuine asylum seekers has eroded the whole mood of panic" that helped Mr. Howard win another term.
Every 10 minutes, according to attorneys representing the detainees at Woomera, one person is taken out on a stretcher for forcible rehydration.
The refugees claim that no Afghans have been processed for the last three months and that some people have been at the center for more than two years.
The normal time for processing is between 14 and 17 weeks, according to the government. Afghans are the largest group in Australia's detention centers, followed by Iraqis and Iranians.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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