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Australian Police Capture More Escaped Asylum Seekers - 2002-06-30

Australian police have caught another 14 illegal asylum seekers who escaped from the Woomera detention facility Thursday night. Ten of the original 35 remain on the run. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

Australian police say they picked up the escaped asylum seekers Sunday near Port Augusta, 200 kilometers south of the remote desert Woomera immigration and detention camp.

The escapees were part of a group of 35 asylum seekers, who broke out of Woomera on Thursday night. There are now 10 escapees on the run, including two boys. There are growing fears for their welfare - as nighttime temperatures in the surrounding desert dip below freezing.

The authorities say it is possible the escapees have already left the region, aided by pro-refugee activists who helped them break out. An official investigation has begun to establish why and how the mass escape was possible.

Police have scaled down their search and are now only investigating suspected sightings of the remaining escapees.

Police inspector Des Bray said those recently recaptured seemed relieved to finally be apprehended. "I think they were fairly depressed about the whole situation and were quite happy to see police and be taken in to custody where they could be fed, clothed and be warmed," he said.

Many of the asylum seekers will appear in court Monday to face charges of escaping custody. All of the 35 who escaped, 28 Afghans, six Iranians and one Iraqi, had had their visa applications denied and were facing deportation.

Meanwhile at Woomera, more than 100 illegal immigrants continued their hunger strike for a seventh day. Refugee advocates say nine children are among the group.

The remote camp at Woomera has endured attempted suicides, mass escapes, riots and hunger strikes since it became an immigration facility three years ago.

Australia's mandatory detention policy where all asylum seekers are locked away until their claims for refugee status are assessed has been criticized by the United Nations and human rights groups. The process usually takes a few months but can last for up to five years.

The Australian government, however, is unbending. It claims the mostly Afghan, Iraqi and Iranian asylum seekers who arrived by boat from Indonesia are queue jumpers, trying to sneak in ahead of the 10,000 allowed into Australia each year through Unsponsored humanitarian programs.