SYDNEY – SYDNEY (AP) — A group of asylum seekers protested on the roof of an Australian detention center where they were being held Tuesday, saying they were scared of being returned to their home countries and upset over the death of a fellow detainee who was about to be deported.
Australia has seen a surge of asylum seekers fleeing Sri Lanka, Iraq and Afghanistan, and protests at detention centers have been relatively common. The influx has touched off a heated political debate as opposition politicians blame the flow on a relaxation of immigration policies by the ruling Labor Party.
Eleven detainees — mostly from Sri Lanka — climbed onto the roof at the Villawood detention center in western Sydney on Monday.
In a statement, the protesters said they would get off the roof if immigration officials promised them they would be allowed to stay in Australia or any country that has signed the U.N. Refugee Convention.
"We are genuine refugees and came to Australia to seek protection — not to be detained in an unlawful way," the protesters said in the statement, which was issued by officials of Australia's Refugee Action Coalition, who have been in contact with the protesters by mobile phone.
"This is a peaceful protest for freedom for refugees all around Australia and we will continue it," they said.
Two of the protesters, an Iraqi and an Iranian, voluntarily climbed down from the roof Tuesday afternoon. Police placed padded mats around the perimeter of the building in case any of the remaining nine jumped or fell.
Officials were trying to coax them off the two-story building, said Department of Immigration spokesman Sandi Logan, adding that he was "reasonably confident" they would come down safely after further negotiations.
Shortly before their rooftop protest, a 36-year-old Fiji man died suddenly at the center from causes that immigration officials would not discuss. Fellow detainees, however, said the man leaped off the roof in front of them just hours before he was to be deported.
The Australian Broadcasting Corp. identified the man as Josefa Rauluni, a fruit picker who was arrested in August for overstaying his visa. The broadcaster said it had obtained a letter written by Rauluni in which he said he would rather die than be forced to return to Fiji.
New South Wales state police are investigating the death.
Refugee advocate Sara Nathan, who has been talking to the rooftop protesters by mobile phone, said they were upset that their asylum claims had been rejected. Some of the protesters held up a sheet reading, "We need Help and Freedom."
"They are very fearful that they will be deported, and they have also clearly said that rather than be deported they will take their lives," Nathan said.
An immigration department spokesman, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said officials hadn't confirmed any reports that the protesters were threatening to commit suicide or hurt themselves.
The spokesman added that the protest would do nothing to further their bids to stay in Australia.
"These activities will not alter the department's processing of the clients' cases," he said. "However, if they engage in criminal activity, this would be referred to the police for possible charges."
Around 5,000 people are being held at immigration detention centers in Australia. Some are detained for overstaying their visas, but the majority want asylum in Australia because they claim they would face political or other persecution back home.
The refugee advocates classify the protesters as asylum seekers, but the immigration department won't comment on the status of the detainees' claims or whether any deportations would be imminent.