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Controversial Woomera Detention Center to Undergo Changes

The Australian government says it will close parts of the controversial Woomera detention center for asylum seekers and shut down another camp following a review of immigration facilities. The remote desert camp at Woomera, which holds around 300 illegal immigrants, has been plagued in recent months by riots, hunger strikes, breakouts and suicide attempts by detainees.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said Woomera will be downsized because two new camps are under construction and the number of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia illegally is declining. The minister added that the government needed to cut its reliance on older, less suitable facilities. Woomera is earmarked for use for what the government described as "community-based detention".

Mr. Ruddock said the review of detention centers would not weaken the government's determination to combat illegal immigration.

"It's a problem that's come about as a result of unlawful attempts to enter Australia by people who've used people smugglers," he said. "A very significant proportion of them are not seeking genuine asylum and are making secondary movements from situations in which they're already safe and secure.

Australia's network of detention centers has been widely criticized by the United Nations and human rights groups, especially for imprisoning women and children. Illegal immigrants are automatically sent to the camps once they arrive. Some detainees have been locked up for more than three years waiting to have their claims for refugee status assessed. Woomera, a former missile testing base on a barren desert plain 1,800 kilometers west of Sydney, has been singled out as the worst.

Another camp, Curtin, at an air force base in Western Australia state, will be closed but will remain available as an emergency center. A new camp is being constructed near the remote mining town of Port Augusta in South Australia.

The government also plans to build a new facility at Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean.

Refugee advocates have welcomed the shake-up in the detention system, but are disappointed that Woomera is not being fully shut down.