Asylum seekers sew lips shut over camp conditions


TEN ASYLUM seekers in a detention camp on Christmas Island (2,360 km off the coast of Western Australia) have sewn their lips shut in protest at conditions and are refusing medical treatment.

However he warned that the protesters' action would make no difference to their cases. "Applications to come and stay in Australia are dealt with on their merit," Mr Bowen said. "They cannot and will not be changed by any protests."

The Social Justice Network, a refugee advocacy group, said about 250 asylum seekers on Christmas Island had been on hunger strike since Wednesday.

The detainees, who are from Iran, Iraq, Algeria and Palestine, declared a hunger strike after they heard about the suicide of an Iraqi detainee, Ahmad al Akabi, in Sydney's Villawood detention centre earlier this week.

Dr Louise Newman, a psychiatrist who advises Australia's department of immigration, said these protests raised questions about the effect of mandatory detention on psychological health.

"Clearly it's a fairly desperate act and it has clear symbolic value. It is really saying that people feel they have no voice, they feel powerless.

"We're not clear at the moment about the reasons for this protest. Some have obviously been declined in terms of their applications, others are still in the process, which suggests there's something very distressing for these people about the actual immigration process," she said.

The opposition Liberal Party, which portrayed the Labor government as "soft on immigration" in the recent federal election, said the protest was a consequence of bad policy.

"This latest disturbing event is a further symptom of an immigration detention system in crisis, which the coalition has consistently warned would become a reality under Labor's failed immigration and border protection policies," Liberal spokesman Scott Morrison said.

In 2002, under the then Liberal government, 70 asylum seekers at a facility in South Australia sewed their lips together in protest against their detention.

There are about 5,000 asylum seekers being held in Australian detention centres. The government recently announced it would build more centres to ease overcrowding, a proposal which has met strong resistance in some of the communities earmarked to house detainees.