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Australia Indicates It Might Relocate Asylum Seekers

January 29, 2002|From Associated Press

SYDNEY, Australia — The government hinted today that it might close an outback detention center and move illegal immigrants held there to other sites--one of the key demands of asylum seekers on hunger strike at the center.

It was not immediately clear whether the apparent softening of the government's position on immigration policy would affect a suicide pact made by 11 youngsters at the Woomera camp.

The refugees, mostly Afghans ages 14 to 17 and without parents or guardians at the detention center, said Monday that they would attempt to poison themselves or throw themselves onto razor wire surrounding the camp today if their demand to be removed was not met, their lawyers said.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said today that the center could be scaled down as other holding facilities are built. Closing Woomera outright might be possible in the future, he added.

"Whatever approach you take, Woomera will be required for certain contingencies and quite possibly for holding other groups of people who have exhausted their asylum claim opportunities," Ruddock said.

As the crisis entered its 14th day today, the government's Immigration Detention Advisory Group recommended closing the Woomera camp, a former missile testing base on a hot, dusty plain 1,120 miles west of Sydney.

"Woomera is an extremely harsh environment in which to detain anybody," said Paris Aristotle, a member of the Immigration Detention Advisory Group.

Hundreds of mostly Afghan asylum seekers are on hunger strike at Woomera. The protesters are demanding that the government speed up their asylum claims and move them out of the camp. Some protesters have stitched their lips closed as part of the strike.

Detainees at other centers across Australia have joined the hunger strike in a show of solidarity.

Late Monday, the detainees said some people would remove the stitches from their lips out of respect for the Immigration Detention Advisory Group, which is trying to solve the crisis.

Also, 22 detainees at Melbourne's Maribyrnong detention center abandoned their hunger strike Monday after five days without food, refugee advocates said.

About 175 Woomera detainees have not eaten for nearly two weeks. They have grown increasingly weak as dehydration and temperatures as high as 104 have taken their toll.

Ruddock's comments came after church leaders and the Red Cross joined a growing chorus criticizing the government's policy of locking up all illegal immigrants while their asylum applications are considered--a process that can take as long as three years.

There are about 3,000 illegal immigrants--mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and southern Asia--in detention in five camps across Australia.

On Monday, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference called on the government to reassess how it deals with asylum seekers, saying its policy is being implemented at "too high a moral cost."

The Red Cross said the detainees were in crisis and their behavior stemmed from despair.

Prime Minister John Howard has refused to back down. The issue threatens to overshadow his weeklong visit to the United States, which starts today.

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