ADELAIDE, Australia – Ten asylum seekers at an Australian detention center have sewn their lips together to protest delays in processing their refugee applications, as the government warned that protests will not change the outcome of the visa process.
The male asylum seekers have refused medical assistance since sewing their lips together Friday morning at the Christmas Island detention center. They are taking water and sugar.
"This is distressing for me and most of the Australian people," Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told reporters in Sydney on Friday, but he reiterated that every asylum seeker was subject to the same process.
"Any protest which is designed to change the result of refugee applications will not work," Bowen said. "In Australia, if you are a genuine refugee you'll be accepted. If your application is not recognized as being genuine, you'll be rejected."
The incident was part of a larger protest by 160 detainees at the remote center on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean where asylum seekers who illegally enter Australian waters by boat are detained.
The detainees are demanding reviews of their rejected refugee applications and speedier processing. Some have been housed in detention centers for more than a year.
The Christmas Island protest follows the apparent suicide last week of an Iraqi asylum seeker at a detention center in Sydney and a subsequent protest there.
"We can expect them to continue making protests to say that they wish to stay in Australia, that they wish their refugee application to be approved," Bowen said.
He said the government would intervene in the current protest if necessary to prevent any fatalities.
The protests and the continued arrival of boats in Australian waters have reignited a continuing political debate about immigration and border protection policies.
"This latest disturbing event is a further symptom of an immigration detention system in crisis," opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said in a statement.
Australia has long been a destination for people from poor, often war-ravaged countries hoping to start a new life. Most asylum seekers in recent years have come from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. They typically fly to Indonesia before continuing to Australia in cramped, barely seaworthy boats.
This year, more than 110 boats carrying asylum seekers have entered Australian waters. Their occupants have been detained at either Christmas Island or mainland detention centers while their refugee claims are assessed.