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Wednesday, 30 January, 2002, 15:27 GMT
Asylum policy emerges unscathed
Anti-asylum banner
Australians largely support the government's policy
By the BBC's Phil Mercer in Woomera

Australia's tough asylum policy has emerged unscathed after two weeks of a mass hunger strike and self-mutilation inside the country's biggest detention centre at Woomera.

The deal to end the crisis was brokered by independent trouble-shooters appointed by the government.

After two days of talks inside Woomera, members of the Immigration Detention Advisory Group convinced the protesters their asylum claims would be processed in a fair and just fashion - something they had consistently called for.

Refugee in hospital
Dozens of refugees sewed their lips together
One key demand, to be removed from Woomera to a less isolated facility, was not granted.

They may however still get their wish to leave the old missile-testing base deep in the desert described by opposition politicians as a hell hole.

Plans are being considered to scale down Woomera when a new facility is finished later this year, 300 kilometres (200 miles) from Adelaide near Port Augusta. It will have space for 1,200 detainees.

Government victory

The negotiators stress there were no winners or losers, only that a "terrible tragedy" had been averted.

It is however a victory for the conservative coalition government of John Howard. It fought and won last November's federal election thanks to tough talk on illegal immigration.

Cameraman at Woomera
Reporters are kept away from the detention camps
Buoyed by popular support from the majority of Australians during the Woomera crisis, Mr Howard has not buckled under the pressure exerted by the detainees.

The refugee debate has raged throughout Australia and beyond during the 15 days of often violent protest.

The government said asylum seekers were a threat to Australia's sovereignty - dissenting voices insisted it was no excuse for the inhumanity shown to people fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.

The asylum issue has replaced Aboriginal affairs as the major moral and humanitarian debate in a country of fewer than 20 million people - a country founded on wave-after-wave of immigration in the past 200 years.

All the talk may be about asylum but there are almost no asylum seekers reaching Australia.

Pacific Solution

The numbers of detainees in a network of six camps spread across the major cities to the outback is gradually falling. This is because Australia has been able to farm its refugees out to poorer nations as the Howard government pursues its Pacific Solution.

Since August the flow of illegal migrants heading to Australia's rugged northern coastline from Indonesia has been reduced to barely a trickle.

Navy patrols have intercepted boatloads of people seeking asylum in the Indian Ocean. They are either turned away or sent to Australian-sponsored processing camps on the Pacific Island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Up to 2,000 asylum seekers will have their applications for refugee status processed far from Australia.

Throughout the crisis at Woomera, the government has insisted the mandatory detention of asylum seekers has deterred others from trying to reach Australia.

It may also have something to do with the weather - this is cyclone season in northern Australia where monstrous storms may also make the boat people and the criminal gangs who transport them think twice about setting sail.

The government estimates a third of all refugees that attempt the crossing from Indonesia drown.

Opposition demands

The hunger strike at Woomera could prove to be a decisive moment in Australia's attitude to refugees.

The opposition Labor Party, lambasted for following the government's line on asylum during the election, has taken the first steps to dismantle that bi-partisan approach.

While the Labor leader, Simon Crean, has not called for the scrapping of mandatory detention - a policy introduced originally by his party - he has demanded a less hardline stance to be adopted.

This would include the release of all unaccompanied minors from the camps into foster care and for mothers to be allowed to live in the community with their children while their asylum claims are investigated.

See also:

30 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australian hunger strike ends
24 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australia lifts asylum claim freeze
23 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australian asylum protest spreads
23 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australia stands by asylum policy
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