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Australia Soccer Team of Refugee Players Promotes Tolerance - 2002-04-16

A soccer team made up of young refugees is on tour in Australia. The refugee players have all fled persecution at home and have been given temporary permission to stay in Australia. While many Australians support the government's tough detention policy for illegal migrants, the tour is beginning to change some minds.

Most of the Afghan Tigers' players are ethnic Hazaras from central Afghanistan. Some are from Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Eritrea. They all came by boat from Indonesia and spent time in Australian detention camps before their claims for refugee status were approved. Camilla Cowley, the team manager, says the tour has changed the way many Australians think about asylum seekers.

"The boys got the most wonderful warm welcome. They were billeted with families, mostly on farms," she said. "It was just the most brilliant, warm welcome, tears on parting, names and address going to write to each other. And there have been plenty of people who sat at home thinking 'I don't like what's happening' but they haven't done anything. Now they're going to. This is galvanizing them."

Ataullah, 20, fled the Taleban two years ago, after having been imprisoned. He made it to Australia with the help of people smugglers via Pakistan and Indonesia. He says he did not think he would survive his journey to Australia's rugged north-western coastline.

"Ten days in the sea," he said. "We didn't know when we get to Australia or how we get to Australia and every time the sea was very squally, so the storm was starting and the boat was too small and everybody was screaming, crying and shouting."

The United Nations and human rights groups have criticized Australia's strict asylum policy. To stem a tide of illegal arrivals, Australia automatically detains asylum seekers who arrive without proper permission. They are held in camps while their asylum applications are considered a process that can take three years or more.

Shah is another young man who escaped from Afghanistan during the years of Taleban repression. He was held in a remote camp in Western Australia before being released.

"We were like feeling like mentally, we were tortured because we didn't know what was going to happen to us," he said. "You feel humiliated, you feel down. You've got numbers to call you they don't call you by your name. You have to line up for the food, you have to line up for the shower, you have to line up for everything so you feel very, very humiliated."

The government has defended the mandatory detention of asylum seekers on health and security grounds. Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock thinks many of the illegal arrivals are not genuine refugees.

"It's a problem that's come about as a result of unlawful attempts to enter Australia by people who've used people smugglers, which 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," he said.

Ataullah, like his teammates, has been granted a three-year protection visa. When it runs out, he will apply for another and will either be allowed to stay on or be deported. He still fears persecution at home.

"I never want to go back to Afghanistan because if I go again I wouldn't find a peaceful life. My life would again be in danger, again be in hardship," he said.

Australia's immigration minister has said he plans to visit Afghanistan soon to see if it is safe for those who fled the Taleban to return home.