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Friday, 25 January, 2002, 05:22 GMT
Australia stands firm on refugees
An anti-asylum seekers banner
There is much hostility towards the asylum seekers
The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, has said his government's tough immigration policies will not be watered down by continued unrest inside the troubled Woomera detention centre.

There is no alternative if we are to keep control of the flow of people into this country

Prime Minister John Howard
The government has lifted a ban on the processing of claims from Afghan detainees in a move aimed at easing the growing tension inside the remote camp in the southern Australian desert.

The authorities also released around 20 Woomera detainees after their refugee claims were accepted.

But Mr Howard, in his first public comments on 10 days of turmoil at a controversial outback camp for illegal immigrants, said the decision to start assessing the asylum claims did not amount to a cave-in to the protestors.

"We don't like having to detain people," Mr Howard told Channel Nine television in an interview.

"But there is no alternative if we are to keep control of the flow of people into this country. I want to make it very clear that we don't intend to abandon the detention policy."

'Worse than jail'

Detainees in the six camps spread around the country are locked up for months, even years, while the authorities decide whether they are genuine refugees.

According to Mr Howard, releasing them to live in the community would only encourage more asylum seekers to come to Australia.

Detainees who were released said Woomera was "worse than a jail".

"The news media of Australia call us illegal immigrants. That is not true, we are not queue jumpers, not illegal immigrants, we are asylum seekers," Iranian Babak Ahmadi, who spent 20 months in Woomera, told the Reuters news agency.

Suicide attempts

The crisis has escalated after another 15 inmates attempted suicide or self-mutilation.

At least 44 inmates, including one child, had their lips sewn together as part of their protest.

Hunger strikers hospitalised
Detainees have tried to poison or harm themselves this week
Several detainees have tried to hang themselves with bed sheets - including a 16-year-old boy. Others have swallowed shampoo and painkillers.

Cyrus Sarang, the head of the Refugee Action Collective, told Reuters that an inmate had called him to say protesters were slashing themselves with knives.

"Really horrible things are happening here. Many of them are trying to hang themselves, kill themselves or cut themselves," the asylum seeker said, according to Mr Sarang.

Cruel conditions

The compound is surrounded by a giant perimeter fence and is patrolled by security guards.

The BBC's Phil Mercer in Woomera says that the steel roofs of the blocks housing the detainees can be seen shimmering in the blistering desert heat.

Ruins of a building at the Woomera detention camp in southern Australia
Several buildings within the holding centre have been damaged
Temperatures reach the high thirties, and the red desert dust is constantly whipped up by the wind.

A banner draped over a nearby road sign illustrates the hostility some local residents feel towards their reluctant neighbours.

It urges the asylum seekers to go home.

"No visa", says the banner - "tell your friends".

An editorial in an influential Australian newspaper, however, makes a plea for compassion.

The Sydney Morning Herald says the people of this country should carefully reflect what the paper calls "the brutal treatment of asylum seekers".

Over the past two years, some 8,000 boatpeople arrived in Australia, a relatively small number.

Every year Australia takes in 10,000 refugees who are formally resettled by the United Nations and another 50,000 permanent migrants, mainly from Britain and New Zealand.

The BBC's Phil Mercer
"They want to be moved out of Woomera to another facility that isn't so isolated"
See also:

24 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australia lifts asylum claim freeze
24 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Australia's tough asylum policy
25 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Death watch in the outback
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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