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UN Criticizes Australia's Treatment of Asylum Seekers - 2002-06-06

The United Nations has voiced harsh criticism of Australia's policy of mandatory detention for illegal asylum seekers. The U.N. says would-be refugees in Australia are treated worse than criminals because they are not told how long they will be in detention.

A United Nations working group on arbitrary detention has visited five of Australia's six detention centers to assess the status of the asylum seekers.

Its members reported widespread depression among detainees - most of whom are from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.

All asylum seekers who enter the country without approval are held in camps until their asylum applications are processed, which can take three years. Australia, however, does not detain the roughly 10,000 refugees it takes in legally each year.

The working group's chairman Louis Joinet talked to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He says that depression among detainees appears to be linked to their uncertainty over how long they will be held. "The whole process is very slow, and also there's a lack of adequate information given to the detainees on the status of their visa applications, with the result that they have the feeling almost as if they're living in limbo," he said.

The working group's strongest concerns were over the detention of vulnerable people, including children, the disabled, pregnant women and elderly asylum seekers.

In recent months, some detainees at the remote outback Woomera center have held hunger strikes, attempted suicide and sewn their lips together to protest their detention.

The Australian government rejects the group's criticism.

The Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock dismisses the idea that detention alone is the cause of depression. "The range of circumstances that people may have experienced before they've come to Australia could also be a significant matter in terms of the conditions that people have when they present here," he said.

The working group's report on the Australian policy goes to the United Nations next March.