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Asylum Seekers Escape From Australian Detention Center - 2002-03-29

More than a dozen asylum seekers have escaped from the Woomera detention center in the South Australian desert, after 1,000 demonstrators attempted to storm the compound. The protest is part of a campaign aimed at pressuring the government to change the way it handles illegal immigrants.

Chanting and singing, the demonstrators marched across a restricted area to one of the outer steel fences that guard this remote desert facility. A large section was ripped down, allowing many of the activists into the compound. Inside the detention center a small group of asylum seekers had amassed on the roof of one of the housing blocks. A dozen, including a child, managed to climb over an interior razor wire fence to escape. Protesters immediately put new clothes on the refugees and whisked them away from police, who then began scuffling with other rioters outside the camp. Ten police on horseback rode into the crowd in an attempt to quell the escalating violence.

Roadblocks have been set up by the police to stop the escaped asylum seekers from leaving the immediate area.

This is the latest unrest to hit the desert camp. In its three years as an immigration facility there have been several hunger strikes, a mass escape, riots and attempted suicides.

Many of those housed at the facility are from the Middle East and South Asia. They are frustrated with how long its takes for their asylum applications to be processed, which in some cases takes years.

The demonstrators here at Woomera have come from around the country to voice their opposition to Australia's mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

But the government is unapologetic, insisting mandatory detention is needed to sort out legitimate asylum claims from the fraudulent. Canberra says its policies are more than fair since most of the claimants have entered Australia illegally, jumping ahead of the thousands of people who apply to live in Australia through legal channels.