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Sunday, 31 March, 2002, 13:48 GMT 14:48 UK
Activists outwit Australia's asylum policy
Protestors carry toys to Woomera
Activists have out-manoeuvred the police
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By the BBC's Phil Mercer
In Woomera

It has been an embarrassing weekend for Australia's iron-fisted asylum policy.

The country's biggest detention centre at Woomera was stormed by demonstrators who tore down large sections of the perimeter fence.

With the camp's outer skin breached, 50 detainees escaped. The police and government security guards were clearly out-numbered and out-manoeuvred. More than two days on, 10 of the escapees remain on the run.

The recriminations have already begun. Australia's Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock has criticised the police for failing to prevent Friday's mass escape.

Mr Ruddock is one of the architect's of the government's strict refugee policy. He will demand to know why so many people waving flags and singing were able to casually walk across the desert in broad daylight before attacking the detention compound at Woomera.

Riot police tackle protestors
The police's handling of the demonstrations has brought recriminations
The minister's broadside at the police has brought him into conflict with the leader of the South Australian government, who has defended the role played by the state's law enforcers.

Among those who fled the centre were a mother and her three children aged between eight and 12. They were found with two protesters near a bogged down camper van on a remote farm east of Woomera.

The mass break-out is another extraordinary chapter in the centre's history.

Government stands firm

In its three years as an immigration facility, Woomera has seen children sew their lips together in protest over visa applications as well as hunger strikes, attempted suicides and riots behind the razor wire.

Australia's conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, has insisted the protests at Woomera may backfire and generate more support for the government's asylum policy.

Mr Howard won a third term at last November's federal election on the back of tough talk on illegal immigration and believes the demonstrations may turn more Australians towards favouring the government's stance on detaining asylum seekers.

Anyone arriving here without the correct documents and claiming to be a refugee is automatically locked up while those claims are investigated.

The process usually takes a few months but can last for up to five years.

That kind of behaviour will not for a moment alter the approach the government has taken, is taking and will take to this issue

John Howard
Australian Prime Minister

The prime minister, a skilled political operator, is insisting his government will not buckle under any pressure the refugee campaigners create.

"That kind of behaviour will not for a moment alter the approach the government has taken, is taking and will take to this issue," he said.

Escapees' fate unknown

The government is claiming it is winning its war on illegal immigrants. It says there have been no unauthorised arrivals of boat people for the past five months due to tough new border controls.

Mr Ruddock told Australian television the country's tough refugee policies and not the seasonal tropical storms that are deterring people from entering Australia illegally by boat from Indonesia.

"Some people say it's the monsoons. Well, the last monsoon presented us with 1,300 people and the previous monsoon presented with 2,600 people in the same period and so the numbers are down very significantly."

Australian Prime Minister John Howard
John Howard says the demonstrators will not win
Back at Woomera, there are conflicting views on where the remaining escapees are now.

The police fear some may be lost here in the south Australian desert and may be running out of food and water.

Superintendent Wayne Bristow, said they could be on the verge of dying from dehydration.

"This is a desert area, these people had no knowledge of it," said the superintendent.

"It's a tragedy waiting to happen."

The protesters, however, claim a number of the escapees have been spirited away to some of Australia's major cities where they're being harboured by refugee sympathisers.

If this is true, these detainees will almost certainly be used to taunt the government in the coming weeks.

See also:

29 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Woomera riot
29 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
Tensions rise ahead of Woomera protest
12 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australia clears UN visit to Woomera
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