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Tuesday, 12 February, 2002, 23:16 GMT
Australia clears UN visit to Woomera
Protest against asylum policy in Canberra
Protesters continue criticising the government
Mary Robinson, the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, has welcomed Australia's announcement that it will let an UN envoy inspect the controversial Woomera camp for asylum seekers.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said on Monday that the UN envoy, Justice PN Bhagwati, would be allowed to visit the camp in May, when another group of UN observers is scheduled to go there.

Cameraman at Woomera
Reporters have been kept away from detention camps
"In announcing the decision, I reiterate that Australia has nothing to hide from scrutiny of its immigration detention and processing centres," Mr Downer said.

Mrs Robinson said that given the concerns over the camp, which last month witnessed protests and hunger strikes by detainees, the visit should take place ahead of the second group's arrival.

Protests continue

Agreement on the visit came as about 2,000 refugees and campaigners marched on the Australian parliament in Canberra, which was convening for the first time since Prime Minister John Howard's conservative coalition was returned to power in a general election last November.

Waving banners and chanting "free the refugees", the protesters called for the release of asylum seekers being held in detention centres and a relaxation of hardline immigration policies which helped win the government re-election.

Woomera, in the southern Australia desert, is the largest and most isolated of Australia's six secure camps for illegal immigrants. Most of its inmates are Afghan asylum seekers, some of whom have been waiting years for their cases to be resolved.

Criticism of Australia's treatment of asylum policies mounted sharply last month after more than 240 asylum seekers - mainly Afghans - went on hunger strike and staged other protests.

The actions were abandoned after the government promised to treat their claims to asylum in a more transparent fashion.

But the protesters' demand that they be moved to a less remote facility was not met.

Some of the hunger-strikers, who included children, had threatened to commit suicide, and many sewed their lips together or drank disinfectant as part of their protest.

See also:

12 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australia accused of spying
04 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Oxfam criticises Australia over asylum
30 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Asylum policy emerges unscathed
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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