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Australian Immigration Policies Pit Activists Against Conservative Government - 2003-06-16

In the past 50 years, almost 600,000 refugees have been resettled in Australia, a country founded on mass immigration but with increasingly strict asylum laws. The country's immigration policies have pitted human rights activists, who say the rules are unfair, against the conservative government, which argues these policies are necessary to sort genuine claims from the bogus.

These protestors are raising their voices against Australia's tough policy on illegal immigration outside the detention camp at Woomera, hoping to engage the country in debate about refugees.

There are two types of refugees in Australia: those resettled under official humanitarian programs, and those who arrive unofficially, usually by boat, seeking asylum.

At the heart of the debate is the mandatory detention of asylum seekers. Anyone arriving without visas or passports and claiming refugee status is automatically placed in one a several remote or third country detention centers while their application is processed.

Authorities insist this policy is necessary on health and security grounds, and to fairly deal with people who use illegal entry to claim asylum.

Human rights activists have branded the procedures as "inhuman" because they can take years to complete, leaving the refugees in a hopeless state of limbo. Margaret Piper, of the Refugee Council of Australia, explains saying "the two elements of Australia's detention regime that are most contentious are the fact that it is mandatory, which means that everybody who arrives without authorization is locked up irrespective of whether there is a need to detain them or they're a risk in any way to the community, and the fact that it is non re-viewable, so there's no possibility to apply for bail or release under any grounds from immigration detention."

Most asylum seekers spend a few months in detention until their claims are judged to be genuine or bogus. They can appeal a rejection, but that can stretch an asylum seeker's time in detention into years.

Hussain is an Iraqi, who fled Saddam Hussein's regime as a young man. He traveled through Kuwait, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Malaysia and Indonesia, where $700 bought him a place on a boat to Australia's rugged northwestern coastline.

He spent eight months in Australia's detention center at Woomera, in the South Australian desert. He was released three years ago and has applied to stay in Australia permanently. But he has issues with the way he was treated by this process. "We have been tortured by the government of Iraq, so we escaped from Iraq to come to Australia. Unfortunately, the Australian government treat us worse than Iraq. It's not fair. It's worse than hell," he says.

Hussain, and many others like him, object to being locked away like criminals, when, they argue, their only 'crime' is to escape fear and persecution. Hussain claims he was abused by guards and psychological intimidation was routine. Boredom and uncertainty punctuate every day a detainee is held.

The physical conditions in which they are kept are humane, with television and air-conditioning in many cell blocks as well as education opportunities and medical care. But what troubles many detainees is their hazardous journey to Australia has landed them behind razor wire fences for a period.

This year, 12,000 people will be resettled under Australia's humanitarian programs, most from the former Yugoslavia, Middle East and Southwest Asia. They are judged to have a "well-founded fear of persecution" in their home countries, and to have experienced "discrimination amounting to a gross violation of human rights."

Australia's Immigration Department says detention policies conform to United Nations guidelines on refugees. Immigration officials say their job is to determine those most in need of resettlement quickly, and unauthorized boat arrivals throw this process into chaos and are unfair to the thousands of people who have been legally waiting for consideration.

Opinion polls suggest most Australians support the refugee policies, including automatic detention. Even the main opposition Labor Party supports the government on this. Labor leader Simon Crean says "I believe that we need to develop a lasting solution that secures our borders, but in terms of the people who are asylum seekers, that we treat them in a humane and fair way and that's what I'm committed to do."

Riots, hunger strikes, self-harm and mass escapes have been a feature of Australia's network of detention centers in recent years. The United Nations has criticized the system, expressing concern that the uncertain length of detainment was creating widespread depression among asylum seekers, about some of the conditions of the camps and that children's rights are not adequately being protected.

Campaigners see the illegal immigrants as desperate, fearful people who are prepared to risk their lives to reach Australia.

Australia acknowledges this reality and the multi-cultural contribution that more than half a million refugees have made since the end of World War II. But the government says, in the end, it must decide how and who will be allowed to remain in Australia.