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Africans Dispute Australia's Reasons for Freezing Asylum Requests

African refugees in Australia are taking exception to a cabinet minister's remark that Africans are having trouble adjusting to the Australian way of life. Tens of thousands of Africans have made new lives in Australia, and many of them have integrated quite successfully. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

Africans have a rich history in Australia. In the last decade this diverse community has grown rapidly, due largely to an influx of refugees from all corners of the African continent.

In recent years, Australia has accepted more refugees from Africa than anywhere else - about 70 percent of the country's total humanitarian intake. Most arrived from war-torn countries such as Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Liberia and Somalia.

Nigerian-born filmmaker and music producer Daniel Okuduwa has been doing business in Sydney for seven years. He sees himself as part of a cultural revolution.

"The African community [in Australia] is a beautiful community. It's an imaginative community," he said. "Most of us are in the universities. Some of them are working. Some are business owners. People like me, we are culturally… enriching the Australian community by bringing in parts of the African culture."

The Australian government begs to differ. It says many African refugees have not made the kind of effort or contribution that migrants such as Okuduwa have.

Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews says the Africans, especially those from Sudan, simply have not fit in.

"We do have a responsibility to the Australian community to ensure that when people come to Australia they're able to adequately settle in this country, and we have detected that there have been additional challenges in relation to some of the people that have come from Africa over the last few years," said Andrews.

As a result, the government has temporarily closed the door. No new asylum applications from Africa will be accepted until at least June of next year.

African community leaders such as Abeselom Nega, the chairman of the African Federation Communities Council, are furious at the change in policy. They accuse the government of trying to win the support of voters worried about rising immigration ahead of coming elections.

"It was disappointing. It was painful and I guess it was something that I have never expected to hear from a minister for immigration," said Nega. "I've lived for quite sometime in this country, so it was absolutely shocking and basically it's a great disappointment to myself and to the community."

Joffrey Mangwi Mugi's story - like that of many refugees - is characterized by great hardship, and then success.

Mugi is 30. He was born in Sudan but spent most of his early years in a camp in Uganda. He arrived in Sydney just over two years ago, and is now employed as a community worker.

This vibrant, diligent young man does not match the government's view of Sudanese refugees.

"I believe I am very well settled. I am from a refugee camp, and I have a lot of white friends and I speak very good English and I am okay, and I believe there are a lot of other people who are like me," said Mugi. "In every community, of course, you really get people who sometimes contravene the law, whatever … but you cannot take that as a sample to measure for the rest of the other community."

African refugees have been accused of forming gangs, harassing women and committing crimes.

Community leaders admit that a small minority have behaved badly, but they insist that the majority has full respect for Australian laws and customs.

The public's views on the situation are mixed. Hanne Smee, a lunchtime shopper in Sydney, grew up in Australia but is originally from Denmark.

"I think they [the Africans] have settled as well as any other group does," said Smee. "They tend to stick together in one area but, I mean, they still have to interact with what we would term Australian society. But let's face it, basically all of Australia are migrants in some form or another."

Government critics fear that the moratorium on African refugees will continue indefinitely.

Tanneh from Liberia worries that she will not be able to bring relatives to join her in Sydney.

"If that is the case, if the government doesn't want any more Africans in this country - it's horrible, because we do have family back home and if we can't get our families joining us here, it's very hard," said Tanneh.

Australia's conservative prime minister, John Howard, says the freeze on African refugee intake is not racially motivated. He says his government has an obligation to ensure that newcomers became part of a cohesive society.

The United Nations refugee agency has entered the debate. It says that those fleeing persecution and war should be accepted for humanitarian reasons, rather than their ability to integrate.