Police have peacefully ended a stand-off with scores of asylum seekers who broke out of an immigration detention center in Australia. The escapees were mostly Afghans, who pleaded to be granted asylum.
Northern Territory police say that more than 70 men escaped early Wednesday by breaking through two electrified fences.
They gathered on the side of a nearby highway, many holding signs pleading for help with their requests for asylum. Most are from Afghanistan and are angry at the time it is taking for their cases to be processed.
One man said he had been detained since arriving by boat nine months ago.
The police surrounded the men and after a seven-hour stand-off, they surrendered.
Refugee advocates say the men are Shia Muslims, a minority group often targeted for violence in Afghanistan because of their beliefs.
The break-out follows disturbances at the center in Darwin Saturday and Sunday involving a group of Indonesians accused of smuggling asylum seekers into Australian waters.
Ian Rintoul, from the Refugee Action Coalition, says the Indonesians are impoverished fishermen who were manipulated by criminal gangs and should be sent home. "One is that they put it in terms of actually being quickly processed. But I think the fact is that the whole issue of Indonesian fishermen being charged with people smuggling offenses, behind that is whether they should be in detention at all, in jail at all. And the Indonesian government has actually made the same point. People want to go home and understandably and rightly so," Rintoul said.
The Australian government says the private company that runs the Darwin center may be fined for breaching its contract after Wednesday's breakout.
Australia each year accepts more than 10,000 refugees through international resettlement programs. However, it detains migrants who enter the country illegally until their asylum claims are processed.
Over the past year, more than 4,000 people have tried to make the dangerous journey to Australia by boat.
Opposition politicians say the Labor government's policies have encouraged illegal migrants, causing overcrowding in the detention facilities. The government says the increase in illegal migrants is the result of conflict in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and other countries.
Immigration featured prominently in Australia's recent election. Both major parties promised tough action to curb the flow of asylum seekers arriving by sea.
The vote ended with a hung parliament, and the major parties are now negotiating with independents to form a government. Most of the independents favor what they describe as a more "compassionate" approach to asylum seekers.