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Young Asylum Seekers Back in Australian Police Custody - 2002-07-18

Two children who escaped from Australia's immigration center at Woomera and sought asylum at the British Consulate in Melbourne have been handed over to the police. The boys, aged 12 and 13, had been on the run since a mass break-out from the remote desert camp earlier this year.

After eight-hours in the British consulate in Melbourne, the boys have been handed over to Australian Federal Police and taken to a detention center in the city. Earlier, accompanied by a lawyer, they walked in and handed over a letter to British officials seeking asylum.

The exact reason the application was refused is unclear. The British High Commissioner in Australia says individual cases are never discussed.

Also unclear is where the boys are from. Australian authorities say the boys are not genuine refugees and that they are from Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Early media reports said they were Afghans.

Prime Minister John Howard says the episode will not harm Australia's reputation overseas.

"I am not concerned about the international view of Australia's treatment of asylum seekers because I have just been to Europe and I can tell you that our policy was not criticized," the prime minister said.

The two brothers escaped from the remote camp at Woomera earlier this year in a mass break-out orchestrated by refugee activists, who tore down fences. They had been held there for about 18-months with their mother and sisters. It is likely the children will be returned to Woomera.

Australia detains migrants who enter the country illegally in various camps. Woomera, an isolated desert camp, has been the scene of several protests, hunger strikes, and break-out attempts in the past year.

Australia takes in about 10,000 legal asylum seekers a year.

But its policy of detaining migrants who enter the country illegally is drawing increasing opposition at home and abroad. Migrants can be locked up two or three years while their asylum applications are processed.

Asylum seekers from Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, in particular, have sought to enter Australia illegally in recent years.

The government steadfastly defends the mandatory detention on health and security grounds.