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Australian Leader Unswayed by Asylum Seeker Protests - 2002-01-25

Australian Prime Minster John Howard is insisting his government's tough immigration policies will not be watered down by continued unrest inside the troubled Woomera detention center. More than 200 asylum seekers are continuing a hunger strike in protest at the way authorities are handling their applications for refugee status.

John Howard said there would be no backing away from Australia's tough asylum policies. The prime minister told ABC Radio there was no realistic alternative to the use of detention. "We would wish that we didn't have this problem to grapple with," he said. "But in the absence of there being both a humane and also policy effective alternative, we will pursue and continue to pursue the policy of mandatory detention."

Most asylum applicants are kept for a few months, while the authorities decide whether they are genuine refugees, although others have been detained for up to five years. According to Mr. Howard, releasing them to live in the community would only encourage more asylum seekers to come to Australia.

The prime minister said the decision to start to assess the asylum claims of detainees from Afghanistan did not amount to a cave-in to the protesters. The government stopped investigating their applications towards the end of last year during the war against the Taleban.

Refugee groups here say conditions inside the camp are getting worse every day. One lawyer said morale had reached an all time low, with some protesters trying to hang themselves.

Temperatures routinely reach the high 30s (C) and the red desert dust is constantly whipped up across this bleak treeless landscape by the wind.

The Immigration Department says 211 mainly Afghan asylum seekers are still refusing to eat. Of these, 37 are children, as the protest enters its tenth day.

The Australian media and human right campaigners are continuing to make a plea for compassion and are calling for the country to reassess its treatment of asylum seekers. Others support the government's position.

A banner draped over a nearby road side near the camp illustrates the hostility some local residents feel toward their reluctant neighbors. It urges the asylum seeks to go home. "No visa," says the banner. "Tell your friends."

Ten thousand refugees are granted permission to stay in Australia every year under international resettlement programs. In the past two years, 8,000 boat people have arrived in Australia and are automatically locked away in one of the detention centers, of which Woomera is the largest, with almost 1,000 residents.