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Tuesday, 5 March, 2002, 16:29 GMT
'Australia encouraging racism' says Amnesty
Woomera detention centre
Hundreds went on hunger strike at Woomera earlier this year
Amnesty International's Secretary-General, Irene Khan, says Australia's policy on asylum-seekers is encouraging racism.

I am afraid the image of Australia today is less of a carefree, sunburnt sporting nation and more the image of... riots and protests at Woomera

AI Secretary-General Irene Khan
Miss Khan, who is on a five-day visit to Australia, said the government should educate people about refugees instead of creating a climate of suspicion by suggesting that they represented a threat.

It is the first visit to Australia by a chief of the London-based human rights organisation to discuss human rights concerns.

Prime Minister John Howard has refused to meet Miss Khan, but she does have plans to meet Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock - who is a member of Amnesty.

Australia's treatment of asylum seekers has come under the spotlight in recent months. In January more than 240 detainees at Woomera detention centre staged a two-week hunger strike to protest at the length of time the authorities took to process their claims.

And there were revelations last month that claims by ministers in the run-up to last year's elections that asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat threw their children overboard were untrue.

'Feeding on fear'

"I am afraid the image of Australia today is less of a carefree, sunburnt sporting nation and more the image of... riots and protests at Woomera...," Miss Khan told journalists at Australia's National Press Club.

AI chief Irene Khan
Irene Khan is Amnesty's first female and Muslim chief

She stressed it was important not to confuse "those fleeing terror with those who are suspected of causing terror".

"It is all too easy to feed people's fears that the threat comes from abroad, to create a climate of suspicion, mistrust, xenophobia and racism," she said.

Amnesty has been increasingly critical of the Howard government's policy of mandatory detention for all asylum seekers who arrive in the country illegally while their application is assessed.

Miss Khan has said she hoped to visit the detention centre at Woomera, where mainly Afghan asylum seekers staged a hunger strike - some sewing their lips together.

They were protesting about the length of their detention and at the conditions inside the camp, which lies in the middle of the South Australian desert.

She also wants to speak to representatives from Australia's indigenous community and other human rights and refugee groups.

The BBC's Phil Mercer
"The Government says it is a fair system"
See also:

14 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Asylum boat children claims 'untrue'
12 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australia clears UN visit to Woomera
27 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Spotlight on Asia-Pacific migration
05 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Q&A: Australia's 'Pacific Solution'
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