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Friday, 29 March, 2002, 04:40 GMT
Tensions rise ahead of Woomera protest
Fence of detention centre at Woomera
Eight hundred refugees are kept at Woomera
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By the BBC's Phil Mercer in Woomera

There have been minor scuffles between protestors and government security guards outside the Woomera detention centre in South Australia.

State police say they are ready to respond to any disorder as more bus-loads of demonstrators continue to converge on the remote desert camp.

The camp has seen several violent demonstrations by detainees in the past two years, including a hunger strike earlier this year when many of those involved sewed their lips together.

Refugee advocates have described Woomera as "a concentration camp".

The Australian Government however says it is a humane environment, and has defended the mandatory detention of asylum seekers on security and health grounds.

About 800 detainees, including many children, are kept within its razor wire fences while their applications for refugee status are considered.

The process takes a few months on average, but can last up to five years.

Direct action plan

The confrontation between members of the Australian Protective Service and a number of protestors camped outside the detention centre took place during Thursday night.

Woomera detainee in hospital
Dozens had sewn their lips together
The APS - a government-funded security force - had attempted to move the demonstrators from their roadside camp to a site closer to the township.

There were minor scuffles but no arrests.

A series of protests against the mandatory detention of asylum seekers have been planned by a broad coalition of groups, from socialists and students to refugee advocates and environmentalists.

Some of the protesters have threatened what they describe as direct action.

Superintendent Wayne Bristowe from the South Australia police says his officers are well prepared.

"We recognise people have the right to peaceful protest and we are fully supportive of that," he said.

"We make the point that they make the choice as to whether they breach the law or not. If they do breach the law, we then have to make a call as to what level of reaction we might make to that."

No visits

A spokesman for Australia's Immigration Department says the situation inside Woomera is calm and that the detainees are aware of the gathering of demonstrators outside.

Lawyers acting for the asylum seekers have failed in the courts to overturn an exclusion order preventing them from visiting the centre over Easter.

The authorities would only say that the reasons are operational.

See also:

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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