Australia's controversial asylum policies have come under renewed fire after reports this week that about a dozen mothers at a Christmas Island detention camp attempted suicide in desperate bids to get their children refugee status and shelter on the Australian mainland.
Since a law passed last year prohibited Australian settlement to any asylum-seekers trying to reach the country by boat, thousands who fled war and poverty in their homelands have been detained at the squalid island camp. There, the refugees await decisions on whether they qualify for asylum; those who do are sent to Papua New Guinea or Nauru, those who don't are sent back to their native countries.
Women with newborns at Christmas Island became desperate after being told on Monday that they would never be allowed to settle in Australia, even if their claims of persecution could be validated, the Sydney Morning Herald reported Tuesday.
"A number of people are trying to commit suicide, they're just full of despair and maybe see no future for their children," Christmas Island refugee representative Gordon Thomson was quoted as telling the Sydney Morning Herald. "Their thinking is that if the babies have been born in Australia, they cannot be sent anywhere else."
The newspaper also quoted Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Council human rights group as saying one woman jumped from a shipping container and others were reported to have attempted to hang themselves or swallow dangerous liquids. He said he had spoken directly with detained asylum-seekers, the majority of whom come from Sri Lanka, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Somalia, and described them as "desperate."
The government disputed the reported rash of suicide attempts, with Immigration Minister Scott Morrison issuing a brief statement Wednesday that said without elaboration that "reports of multiple suicide attempts by women on Christmas Island are not correct."
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott inflamed political opponents and rights advocates with his vow to uphold the country's immigration policies without succumbing to "moral blackmail."
"This is not going to be a government which has our policy driven by people who are attempting to hold us over a moral barrel," Abbott told Channel Nine television.
Australian maritime patrols have also begun intercepting boats at sea that are suspected to be operated by people smugglers and conducting summary asylum evaluations on board, before the boats can cross into Australian territorial waters and their occupants become legally entitled to a day in court.
The most recent clash between human rights advocates and Canberra authorities was sparked by the government's repatriation Sunday of 41 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers from the war-ravaged Tamil region. Although the conflict between Tamil Tigers and Sri Lankan troops was formally settled five years ago, tensions and resentments still fester in the region.
One of the asylum seekers, Damith Kaldera, told the Associated Press in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, that he had been beaten by an Australian officer after complaining about the lack of food, water and sanitation accorded the migrants during their weeklong detention on board the Australian vessel.
Morrison, who made a quick visit to Colombo on Wednesday to ceremonially hand over two patrol boats for the refugee-deterring operation, denied the claims of abuse.
Another intercepted boat carrying 153 asylum-seekers remains at sea pending a court decision on an appeal by refugee rights advocates for proper evaluation of the individual applicants' claims of persecution.
Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd a year ago signed a deal with Papua New Guinea to maintain an asylum-seekers' refuge on Manus Island to accommodate 3,000 detained boat people while their applications were being reviewed. Legal and humanitarian experts denounced the agreement with the corrupt and impoverished island nation as Australia shirking its obligations under international migration covenants.