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Australia Criticized for Policy of Detaining Asylum Seekers

A U.N. human-rights investigator has criticized Australia for its policy of detaining asylum seekers. The investigator spoke at a news conference in Geneva, after spending two weeks in Australia.

U.N. envoy Prafullachandra Bhagwhati, a justice official from India, said he was distressed by what he saw and heard in Woomera. He said he felt he was in front of a great human tragedy.

"The conditions of detention were also in many ways inhuman and degrading. Now, I said degrading for the simple reason these conditions were offensive to human dignity," Mr. Bhagwahti said.

The Woomera center, a former missile-testing base, is located in a very remote part of Australia. Hundreds of asylum seekers, mostly from the Middle East, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka are held there.

Mr. Bhagwhati, who wrote a report on the center, said that he met men, women and children who had been in detention for several months, some of them for one or two years. He said asylum seekers are forced to live in conditions little different from a prison. A tall iron fence surrounds the center and it is patrolled by armed guards.

The U.N. envoy said that children, in particular, are badly traumatized by their seemingly endless confinement.

Mr. Bhagwati said Australia's treatment of the asylum seekers breeches several key international treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the report and at the news conference, he urged the Australian government to improve the conditions of detention and to speed up the asylum and immigration process.

The Australian government calls the U.N. report fundamentally flawed. It accuses the U.N. envoy of being emotional and lacking objectivity. It said his report does not acknowledge that the people in detention are in the country illegally and are free to return home at any time.