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Refugee Agency Urges Australia to Halt Detention of Asylum Seekers - 2002-01-26

The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, has criticized as "unacceptable and unnecessary" Australia's policy of locking up asylum seekers while their claims are being processed. The UNHCR is urging the Australian government to end this policy.

UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski says his agency opposes the detention of asylum seekers anywhere in the world.

"We are against the detention of asylum seekers, prolonged detention of asylum seekers and especially detention of minors. This unfortunately is the case in Australia where people have been detained for a very long time," he said.

The UNHCR complaint comes as more than 200 mainly Afghan asylum seekers in Australia are in the 11th day of a hunger strike. They are held in a detention center in Woomera, in the Australian outback. They are protesting the stark conditions under which they are forced to live and the length of time the government is taking to process their asylum claims.

Some 42 of the strikers reportedly have sewn their lips together. Many others have attempted suicide or tried to injure themselves which Mr. Janowski says shows the asylum-seekers' desperation.

"This whole mess around Woomera illustrates dangerous pitfalls of detaining asylum seekers and basically, it also is a gauge, to some extent, of how desperate these people are," he says.

The U.N. refugee agency recommends asylum seekers be allowed to live in the community while their requests for asylum are processed, and that these claims be processed quickly.

The Australian government stopped processing the claims last month, saying the Afghans should simply be sent home as they no longer had grounds for asylum since the fall of the Taleban regime. Mr. Janowski says the Afghan asylum seekers should not all be thrown into the same basket.

"There are various asylum seekers from Afghanistan. There are people who are claiming persecution by the Taleban regime which now has been deposed. But, there also are people who fled Afghanistan for other reasons. In general, the situation in Afghanistan is still very unstable, very dangerous, extremely difficult. And we do not think it would be appropriate to rush people to go back to Afghanistan at this stage for a whole range of issues," he says.

Mr. Janowski says the UNHCR is in touch with Australian authorities on a daily basis and is working with them on finding a solution to the problem.

Apparently bowing to international protests, the Australian government has announced that it is resuming processing the claims of Afghan asylum seekers.