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Friday, 25 January, 2002, 16:28 GMT
Death watch in the outback
Approach road to Woomera
Woomera, for some, is a sun-baked "hellhole"
By the BBC's Phil Mercer

Woomera is the biggest and most isolated of Australia's six immigration centres.

It lies in the middle of some of the most inhospitable terrain to be found anywhere in Australia.


One activist has told the BBC it is only a matter of time before someone inside Woomera dies as a result of the standoff with the immigration authorities

The highways shimmer in the blow-torch heat where giant "road trains" - the articulated lorries which travel up and down the country - thunder through on their journey to Alice Springs and Darwin to the north and Adelaide to the south.

At night the camp shines brightly across this vast treeless landscape.


During the day it swelters in temperatures up to 40 degrees Celsius.

It is an old military base and stands on the outskirts of the township of Woomera, 475 kilometres north of Adelaide.

Despair

Ten days of hunger strike, attempted suicide and self-mutilation has once again cast Woomera back into the international spotlight.

This is the latest in a long list of disturbances here at the troubled camp.

Sign on perimeter fence
The site is an old missile facility

Eighteen months ago, 500 detainees staged a mass breakout.

They held a peaceful demonstration in a local shopping centre before returning to the compound.

In December, three days of violent unrest left 21 security guards injured.

This protest is about visas, about how long the authorities take to process them, and about the isolation.

The detainees want to be transferred to another facility that is not so remote and offers them better conditions.

The leader of the Australian Democrats, Natasha Stott-Despoja, has described Woomera as a "hellhole".

Babak Ahmadi, a geologist from Iran, walks through Adelaide a free man
Some immigrants were granted visas this week

Refugee advocates agree.

Tirana Hassan is a lawyer acting for some of the protesters who said it was inhumane for these people to be kept for so long in the middle of nowhere.

She said the detainees were prepared to refuse food until they got what they wanted.

"The hunger strike will continue until some sort of reasonable outcome is reached," she said.

No deal

An attempt by the Australian Government to ease the simmering tension inside the camp has been rejected by a delegation of asylum-seekers which has been in discussion with a team of government-appointed negotiators.


There are reports of detainees vomiting blood, collapsing from exhaustion and suffering kidney complaints

The Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, said his officials would start to assess the asylum claims of detainees from Afghanistan which were suspended at the end of last year during the war against the Taleban.

The concession, however, has failed to break the deadlock.

After so many days of protest, it is unclear how long the hunger-strikers can continue before they inflict lasting damage on themselves.

Wire fence being serviced at Woomera
Immigrants made a mass breakout last year

Immigration officials say 211 protesters are now refusing to eat, including 37 children.

Around 50 of the demonstrators have sewn their lips together.

There are signs, according to human rights campaigners, that the protest is beginning to take its toll on those involved.

There are reports of detainees vomiting blood, collapsing from exhaustion and suffering kidney complaints.

One activist has told the BBC it is only a matter of time before someone inside Woomera dies as a result of the standoff with the immigration authorities.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard
Mr Howard's government will not be moved on the issue

The Prime Minister, John Howard, has insisted his government will not buckle under what he called the moral intimidation by the hunger-strikers at Woomera.

Once again, this tiny outback settlement is the focus of world attention.

It has become something of a tourist attraction, too.

Backpackers have been having their photos taken outside the gates.

One told the local newspaper here that she came to be near the place where one of "the darkest moments in Australia's history is taking place".

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
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
23 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australian asylum protest spreads
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
25 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australia stands firm on refugees
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