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Thursday, 24 January, 2002, 15:47 GMT
Australia lifts asylum claim freeze
Woomera detention centre
Some reports say 15 refugees attempted suicide
The Australian Government has announced that it will resume processing the claims of asylum seekers from Afghanistan, in an apparent concession to migrants who have staged protests throughout the country.

The announcement came after at least three asylum seekers tried to hang themselves at the Woomera detention centre in central Australia, where about 200 illegal immigrants are on hunger strike in protest at delays in processing their claims.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock
Ruddock: "We have not compromised the determination system"

The Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, says two men and a 16-year-old boy tried to commit suicide in Woomera, but all were discovered in time and suffered no injury.

Australia suspended refugee claims from about 2,000 Afghan asylum seekers when the Taleban were overthrown in November. Mr Ruddock said changing political events made it impossible to resume processing until now.

It is not clear if the creation of the interim government in Kabul will favour or hinder the refugees' claims for asylum.

'No compromise'

The decision to resume claims was made after Mr Ruddock heard the report of an independent advisory group that visited the Woomera camp earlier this week.

At a press conference, Mr Ruddock denied he was giving in to the Woomera protesters.


"We have not compromised the determination system at all," he said. "We have certainly clarified some misunderstandings about the way in which it operates."

The BBC's Phil Mercer, who is at Woomera, says that while the government insists it is not caving into pressure, its actions are a concession designed to ease the tension within the camp.

Released

Our correspondent says there are mounting concerns about the children caught up in the refugee crisis.

Dr Michael Dudley, a psychiatrist who has recently been inside Woomera, believes the authorities are wrong to detain children in the first place.

"I believe that the government has failed in its duty of care, I think that these children are severely distressed, depressed and traumatised. It's a punitive situation - it's basically an us/them mentality, it turns them into objects and criminals."

Earlier, authorities released 19 Iraqis, two Iranians and one Afghan - one of the 200 participating in the hunger strike - who were issued with visas.

Hunger strikers hospitalised
Over 40 detainees have tried to poison or harm themselves this week

An immigration department spokesman said the hunger strike and recent acts of self-mutilation by detainees - some of whom have sewn their lips together - had not had any bearing on the releases.

"People in detention who are found to be refugees are required by law to be released immediately," he said.

Mr Ruddock also promised that in future detainees would be kept better informed about the progress of their claims for asylum.

A United Nations human rights team was due to inspect the camp on Thursday.

In Melbourne, several hundred people demonstrated in support of the detainees. Police clashed with 50 of them who tried to break into immigration offices.

Attempted suicides

There are unconfirmed reports that many more detainees tried to kill themselves overnight.

Cyrus Sarang, president of pressure group Refugee Action Collective, said detainees at the camp had told him that 15 illegal immigrants strung themselves up from the ceiling with bed sheets.


They are doing it in desperation and if they get the opportunity you will hear some are dead

Cyrus Sarang, Refugee Action Collective

"They are saying 'If they don't want us, give us a boat, put us in the ocean, we want to go, we want to go wherever, we can go to some other country, maybe some other country is better than the Australian Government'," said Mr Sarang, himself an Iranian refugee.

He warned that refugees were bent on committing suicide if they got the opportunity.

"They are doing it in desperation and if they get the opportunity you will hear some are dead," Mr Sarang said.

Immigration Department officials said four detainees, including a child, were given medical treatment overnight at Woomera.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Phil Mercer
"There are hundreds of children inside Australia's asylum centres"
Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock
"I am very angry about some of the detainees"
See also:

24 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Australia's tough asylum policy
23 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australian asylum protest spreads
23 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australia stands by asylum policy
23 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australian press criticises asylum stance
20 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Asylum escape foiled
19 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia's detention centre in the desert
28 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia boat children inquiry
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