The Guardian January 23, 2002


Voices grow against refugee policy

by Marcus Browning

Angry protests by asylum seekers at the Woomera refugee detention centre 
have intensified over the past week and a half amid calls from Human Rights 
Watch, Amnesty International, the Refugee Council of Australia and the UN 
for the Government to change its anti-refugee program.

At the same time the Government has continued to implement its scheme of 
diverting asylum seekers from Australian shores and into camps in various 
Pacific nations.

Nearly 900 prisoners at the Woomera centre have been involved in the 
protests against their inhumane treatment, some sewing their lips together 
in hunger strikes. One person swallowed a toxic substance (disinfectant).

Three separate groups are on hunger strikes says a statement by Afghan 
asylum seekers in the centre. "We have no hope, we see no future. We are 
ready to die.

"We only request the Australian people help us, otherwise we have no choice 
but to continue the hunger strike until the end of our life."

The Woomera Lawyers Group, whose representatives have seen the hunger 
strikers, said their action was a cry for help because the processing of 
visas for Afghanis ground to a halt more than three months ago.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock's response has been predictable, and 
detestable. "Every time people gain an impression that inappropriate 
behaviour produces advantageous outcomes, that leads to more inappropriate 
behaviour", said Ruddock. 

He should know. If anything could be deemed inappropriate it is the 
Government's policy of criminalising refugees.

This was noted by the international human rights organisation, Human Rights 
Watch, in its annual report released last week. On the Government's refusal 
to accept the refugees rescued by Norwegian freighter the "Tampa" last 
year, which set the whole refugee-bashing process in motion, the report 
said:

"[Prime Minister] Howard refused to let them land and reversed his 
political fortunes, winning a third term in mid-November on the basis of 
hard-line policies and new legislation that violated Australia's 
obligations under international refugee law."

The former Australian colony Papua New Guinea has "agreed" to take up to 
1000 asylum seekers a year as part of the Howard Government's Pacific non-
solution. PNG's involvement in this trafficking in people began last 
October when it took 216 mainly Iraqi asylum seekers after pressure from 
Australia and a bribe of $1 million.

Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer said the Manus Island 
army base, where the 1000 will be incarcerated, would become "an asset" for 
PNG  the country's very first immigration prison camp.

Meanwhile, the refugees locked up on the tiny island nation of Nauru  
whose government was also bribed by Australia  are to be processed by the 
UN High Commission for Refugees which will approach countries such as 
Canada and Sweden to resettle them.

The Refugee Council of Australia added to the growing voices of criticism, 
saying New Zealand had demonstrated how it was possible to treat refugees 
humanely and that Australia was primarily responsible for those on Nauru 
and so should allow them to come to Australia.

"We are paying for their detention and processing", said the Council, 
"therefore we have a responsibility to find a durable solution for them."

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