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World ponders Australia's refugee stance

Media are being kept well away from the remote Woomera compound  

By CNN's Grant Holloway

Australian Prime Minister John Howard will address the World Economic Forum in New York this week justifiably proud of the nation's commendable financial performance in a difficult global climate.

But despite the Howard government's solid fiscal stewardship, it is the country's immigration policy that has again thrust it into the international spotlight.

For the past two weeks, a series of protests involving self-mutilation, suicide attempts and hunger strikes at the Woomera Detention Center, in the remote South Australian desert, has proved a weeping sore for the government.

Tales of asylum-seeking detainees sewing their lips together and children forming suicide pacts have shocked Australians and brought global condemnation.

In particular, the Howard Government's policy of mandatory detention for all illegal immigrants, including unaccompanied children, has divided the nation.

Amnesty International says that as of November last year, there were 574 children in detention centers around Australia, including 330 at Woomera -- a remote desert camp about 500 kilometers (300 miles) north of the nearest urban center, Adelaide. Asia
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In a statement released last week, Amnesty suggests the government's policy was breaching its obligations under international law, particularly in relation to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which Australia is a signatory.

"No other Western country detains children in circumstances, and to the extent, that Australia does," Amnesty said.

"Amnesty International urges the Australian Government to honor and fulfill its international law obligations to process all refugee claims and to find alternatives to mandatory detention especially for children," it said.

Adding fuel to the fire, the staunchly independent Red Cross organization took out advertisements in Australian media expressing its "concern for all people currently held at immigration detention facilities across Australia".

"We have the highest concerns for the welfare of the individuals, especially the children, who are involved in protests -- not only for their physical and emotional wellbeing but their psychological health as well," Red Cross said.

The organization also criticized the government's portrayal of the issues, suggesting it was adding a disturbing racial element.

"The categorization of acts which result from human despair as culturally based is of great concern to Australian Red Cross," it said.

These latest broadsides join a raft of concerns expressed from refugee advocates, church organizations and medical profession groups.

So far the government is unmoved.

Howard said Monday the policy of making it plain that Australia wasn't "an easy touch" in relation to illegal immigration had had some success in reducing the numbers of illegal immigrants seeking asylum on Australian shores.

What's more, Howard knows that despite an international outcry, the tough stance on illegal immigration is popular with his voters.

Zero tolerance

His government decided to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on "boat people" sparked by the Tampa affair in mid August last year, when a Norwegian freighter carrying rescued asylum seekers was denied entry to Australian waters.

The government's resolve on the issue was a telling factor in propelling Howard to a third term of office.

During the past two years, about 8,000 asylum seekers -- mainly from the Middle East and Afghanistan -- have arrived on Australian shores.

While only a trickle by international standards, the flow of would-be immigrants aboard ramshackle fishing boats and ferries has been strong enough to ignite passions and prejudices in Australia.

The Woomera protest, which follow months of riots and actions at detention facilities by aggrieved detainees, has become the latest touchstone in this ongoing debate on Australia's approach to immigration and refugees.

It seems unlikely to be the last.




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