Australia rejects calls to soften immigration

Sunday, January 27, 2002

WOOMERA, Australia -- Behind the razor wire at Woomera's detention center, illegal immigrants are referred to by number, not name.

In the baking heat of the Australian Outback, they huddle under the few shady areas of the camp or under blankets strung between huts, lawyers who regularly visit the refugees said Saturday.

"It's dehumanizing," said Tirana Hassan, one of a group of lawyers representing about half the 800 illegal immigrants currently being held at Woomera, a former missile testing range. "They say, 'This is a big cage and we're treated like animals."'

Nearly 200 inmates are on a hunger strike, in its 11th day Saturday, to protest conditions at the camp and the time taken to process their asylum applications. Dozens have sewn their lips together to symbolize their view that authorities do not listen to their appeals. Some have attempted suicide.

The refugees are demanding the government process their applications faster and want to move away from the isolation of Woomera, Hassan said.

All five Australian illegal immigration detention centers -- which together now hold about 3,000 refugees from the Middle East and South and Central Asia -- have similar conditions, but none is as remote as Woomera, built on a desolate plain 1,120 miles west of Sydney.

"They have virtually no books," said Paul Boylan, another lawyer. "They have television but many of them do not speak English."

Reporters barred

The Australian government bars reporters from entering the centers except on rare stage-managed tours, but statements by the lawyers about the conditions are supported by accounts from refugees who have spent time in them.

The Woomera detention center is made up of one- and two-story buildings laid out in a rectangle and surrounded by a high chain link fence topped with razor wire. On Saturday a refugee was hospitalized with lacerations after falling or jumping into a roll of the wire during a protest.

"There are dads in there with wives and kids thinking 'what have I done? This was going to be our escape and we have come to a place just as bad as the place we have run from,"' Boylan said. "People regularly come to us and say 'I'm going mad.'"

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