WOOMERA, Australia – Chanting "Free the refugees!" hundreds of people demonstrated outside detention centers in Australia on Sunday as more illegal immigrants joined a hunger strike to protest their confinement.
"Shame on you, shame on your system!" one protester shouted at an immigration worker at the Maribyrnong detention center in Melbourne. "Look at you, like a Nazi soldier!"
Demonstrators tried to scale a fence around the Melbourne detention center, and also staged protests outside centers in Sydney and Port Hedland.
"It is necessary to show those poor people inside there are views in the Australian community that are not the views of the government," said protester John Martyn in Melbourne.
Paul Boylan, a lawyer representing many detainees, said about 200 more people had joined the hunger strike at a detention center in the Outback settlement of Woomera, bringing the total to about 370 detainees, including children. Most are Afghans, and dozens have sewed their lips together.
The government put the total number at 181, but admitted more refugees were joining the protest at other detention centers.
Four children involved in the hunger strike remained hospitalized Saturday, along with a refugee who climbed onto the roof of a building and leaped onto a coil of razor wire.
Seventeen of the immigrants began refusing food at the Port Hedland detention center in the north of Western Australia state, while another four joined in at Curtin camp, also in Western Australia, the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs said.
At the Maribyrnong detention center, 35 detainees — half the center's population — were on hunger strike, refugee advocates said.
Boylan defended the stepped-up measures. "Gandhi changed the government of India by doing this," he said.
About 175 of the protesting detainees have not eaten for nearly two weeks. They are growing increasingly weak as dehydration and temperatures up to 104 degrees take their toll, lawyers representing them said.
The protesters are demanding that the government speed up their asylum claims and move them out of Woomera, a former missile testing base on a hot, dusty plain 1,120 miles west of Sydney.
Five other children are still on hunger strike at the detention center, along with 162 men and 14 women, the immigration department said. It said 35 detainees, including one child, had their lips sewn as part of the protest.
"They say, 'This is a big cage and we're treated like animals,"' said attorney Tirana Hassan, one of a group of lawyers representing about half of the 800 illegal immigrants currently being held at Woomera.
A guard also was hospitalized after being hit on the head by a rock thrown by an asylum seeker. His injuries were not considered serious.
Prime Minister John Howard has refused calls to soften the government's policy of detaining all illegal immigrants in camps like the one at Woomera until their asylum applications are processed — which can take up to three years.
About 3,000 illegal immigrants, mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and southern Asia are currently in detention in Australia.
Howard says conditions in the five detention centers are deliberately harsh to act as a deterrent to other people considering trying to sneak into Australia.
The United Nations and human rights groups have condemned the policy.
There were no demonstrations Sunday at Woomera. Most people in this community of less than 1,000 people have little sympathy toward the asylum seekers and dislike the detention center, though it provides jobs for about 200 townspeople.