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Thursday, 1 August, 2002, 09:40 GMT 10:40 UK
Australia rejects UN criticism on camps
Protest at the Woomera detention centre
A UN adviser was shocked when he visited Woomera
Australia has angrily rejected as biased and flawed a UN report that condemned its detention of asylum seekers in tightly guarded camps as "offensive to human dignity".

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said that the allegations by an investigator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees would have "the effect of undermining the credibility of the United Nations".


We certainly haven't broken international law on children - that's completely wrong

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer

The report by UN envoy and former Indian chief justice Prafullachandra Natwarlal Bhagwati said the detention of asylum seekers in camps such as Woomera was "a great human tragedy".

Mr Bhagwati, who spent nine days in Australia in May talking to refugee advocates and visiting Woomera, said Australia was breaching UN treaties on civil and political rights, as well as those against torture and inhumane treatment.

Pre-emptive attack

The Australian Government attacked the report even before it was released in Geneva on Wednesday.

Mr Downer added to the criticism on Thursday while at the summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) which discussed the problem of human smuggling across the region.

A boy who escaped Woomera and asked for asylum in Britain
Children had become innocent victims, the report said
"This is a report that's neither comprehensive nor accurate," Mr Downer said.

"We certainly haven't broken international law on children - that's completely wrong."

Correspondents said Mr Downer was visibly agitated as he defended his country's strict policy on illegal immigration as a solution to people-trafficking.

He accused human rights groups of trying to slant the report and said Mr Bhagwati should have been able to see through their posturing.

"I regret it when the United Nations takes so seriously some of the claims that have been made [by] political activists," he said.

Justice Bhagwati, who is the UNHCR adviser for Asia and the Pacific, said he was shocked when he saw the people in Woomera, the most notorious of Australia's detention centres, in the Outback.


The conditions of detention were in many ways inhuman and degrading

UNHCR adviser Prafullachandra Natwarlal Bhagwati
"When I saw their plight, their tale of woe, I was moved, because dignity is the most important possession of a human being," he told reporters.

In his report, Justice Bhagwati said the holding of children, including unaccompanied minors, violated a treaty on the rights of the child.

"The conditions of detention were in many ways inhuman and degrading," he said.

Woomera, where 200 mostly Afghan adults and children are being held, was a "great human tragedy", he said.

While not suggesting that illegal immigrants should be freed, Mr Bhagwati said conditions should be improved in detention centres and people should be held for no longer than a few months.

Children traumatised

Delays hit children especially hard, the report said, leading some to slash their own wrists.

"They were in utter desperation because they did not know when this detention would come to an end," Mr Bhagwati said.

Australia detains asylum seekers - mostly from the Middle East and Sri Lanka - in camps until their applications for refugee visas are processed, which can take up to three years.

There are currently 1,103 people, including children, in the camps.


Detention camps

Boat people

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18 Jul 02 | Asia-Pacific
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