Australia tries to ease camp crisis

29.Jan.02,  first published by BBCnews: read the original article here.

Australian Government negotiators are due to arrive at a remote immigration camp later on Tuesday to meet hundreds of asylum seekers protesting against conditions there.

A hunger strike by hundreds of inmates is now in its third week, and a group of 11 Afghan boy detainees are said by their lawyers to have repeated a threat to commit suicide unless they were released and taken into foster care.

They're talkingabout jumping on razor wire, harming themselves with sharpimplements or ingesting some sort of fluid

Detainees' lawyer Robert McDonaldA deadline set by the children has been extended by 24 hours - they are now to be threatening to poison themselves or throw themselves onto razor wire fences at 1700 on Wednesday (0630 GMT) unless they are taken into care.

The government's independent advisors have called for the Woomera camp to be closed.

But Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said that was not feasible until new centres were completed - although he did concede that Woomera might be scaled down.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said his government was trying to convince the detainees at the Woomera centre of the futility of their actions.

The 11 children - who travelled to Australia without their parents to claim asylum - have been put under increased observation.

A lawyer for the children said a 16-year-old Iraqi boy had tried to hang himself on Monday night.

Karzai to plead for refugees

In the United States, interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai said he would urge Australian Prime Minister John Howard to accept the refugees. Mr Howard and Mr Karzai are in the United States for the World Economic Forum which begins on Thursday.

"I'll raise this issue and try to ask the Australian Government to accept them, and also through that channel send a message to those refugees that if they have fled the Taleban rule or difficulty in Afghanistan that's no longer there, that they can come back to Afghanistan," Mr Karzai told reporters.

The Immigration Detention Advisory Group, set up last year to visit detention centres and report to the government, said Woomera's population of about 900 asylum seekers should be removed from what one member described as "an extremely harsh environment".

The advisory group said Woomera, Australia's biggest and most isolated camp, should only be used in emergencies.

It said new border controls had resulted in almost no asylum seekers reaching Australia, creating space at less remote facilities for the Woomera detainees.

Suicide attempts

The hunger-strikers at the camp are protesting at what they say are unjust delays in the processing of their asylum claims, which can take months or even years.

They are also angry that the detention centres are so isolated.

Some have tried hanging themselves and drinking dangerous concoctions like antiseptic.

Immigration officials say 235 detainees at Woomera are refusing to eat, though refugee lawyers claim the figure is far higher at about 400.

Most are from Afghanistan and have been told by the government they are not genuine refugees and will not be allowed to stay in Australia.

Smaller-scale protests have continued at two other detention centres in Western Australia, although a hunger strike at the Maribyrnong detention centre near Melbourne was abandoned on Monday, immigration officials said.

Throughout the crisis, the government has insisted the mandatory detention of asylum seekers has deterred others from trying to reach Australia.

Since August 2001, the flow of illegal migrants heading to the country's rugged northern coastline from Indonesia has been significantly reduced.

The navy has intercepted boat loads of people seeking asylum who were mainly from Afghanistan and the Middle East.

They are either turned away or sent to processing camps on the Pacific Island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Every year Australia takes in 10,000 refugees who are formally resettled by the United Nations and another 50,000 permanent migrants, mainly from Britain and New Zealand.