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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hunger Strike Puts Australia on the Spot

CANBERRA, Australia -- The Australian government came under mounting pressure Tuesday not to detain children in its controversial camps for illegal immigrants after several teenagers sewed up their lips during a hunger strike.

More than 200 Afghan detainees, including 36 aged under 18, entered the seventh day of a hunger strike Tuesday at Woomera, the biggest and most isolated camp, to protest the time to process refugee claims.

Some 64, including one teenager, had sewn up their lips -- although officials said many had used just a single cotton stitch.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said the protest -- the latest in a series of demonstrations and escapes at Woomera -- would not change official decisions, nor the policy to detain all illegal immigrants in secure camps to assess their cases.

Most Australians were repulsed by the hunger strikers' self-mutilation but agreed this should not pressure the government into changing its widely supported detention policy.

But the latest protest has raised doubts about the conditions in which detainees are held.

Three youths, aged 12, 14, and 15, were taken to hospital at the weekend suffering from dehydration, having sewn up their lips. After treatment, they were returned to the camp.

Six detainees, including two minors, were treated at the camp or a hospital on Monday after drinking disinfectant and shampoo.

An Immigration Department spokeswoman said 18 of the 202 hunger strikers at Woomera, which houses about 850 mostly Middle Eastern and Afghan asylum seekers, were receiving medical treatment for dehydration Tuesday.

"Once again, the policy of detention of children is exposed for its inhumanity because it puts the innocent in an unnecessarily vulnerable position," said an editorial in The Canberra Times.

Under public pressure, Ruddock agreed to an independent assessment of conditions at Woomera, located in desert 475 kilometers north of Adelaide, by a group of psychiatrists, academics, former politicians and nongovernmental organizations.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commissioner, Sev Ozdowski, also announced an immediate investigation as part of a national inquiry into children in immigration detention.

Ozdowski said Australia may have breached human rights conventions, which say child detention is a last-resort measure.