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Australia Softens Asylum Policy

January 24, 2002

ADELAIDE, Australia (AP) _ Australia agreed Thursday to resume processing the asylum applications of Afghan detainees involved in a hunger strike at an Outback detention center.

The decision followed reports from refugee advocates that at least 15 asylum seekers, including a 16-year-old boy, tried to hang themselves overnight at the Woomera internment camp. The government would only say four people, including a child, had been treated within the camp for harming themselves.

Babak Ahmadi, 32, a geologist from Iran, was released Thursday after 20 months in detention at Woomera. He said many asylum seekers were driven to such protests out of despair caused by their prolonged incarceration.

``How can a person sit in detention in the middle of the desert for two years?″ he told The Associated Press. ``Our emotions are crushed. Most people are mentally sick.″

The government said the release of Ahmadi and 21 other refugees was unrelated to the protest. Their asylum applications had been approved and they all were given three-year visas to stay in Australia.

Ahmadi arrived in the southern city of Adelaide after a seven-hour bus journey and was dropped at a welfare office. He then checked into a backpacker’s hostel at the end of the city’s seedy night club strip. He said he did not know what his next move would be.

In December, the government announced it had stopped processing the asylum claims of some 2,000 Afghan refugees being held in Australian detention camps. Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said the detainees may not have had grounds for asylum after the fall of the Taliban regime and the establishment of a transitional government in Kabul.

More than 200 mainly Afghan asylum seekers at Woomera are staging a hunger strike to protest the freeze on asylum claims and the time-consuming processing of applications. The strike at the former missile testing site in northern South Australia state entered its ninth day Thursday.

Some 42 detainees have sewn their lips together, while about 25 people had swallowed potentially lethal cocktails of shampoo and detergent in apparent suicide attempts, the immigration department said. Another 21 people had tried to injure themselves since Jan. 18, including the four people overnight, the department said.

John Hodges, chairman of the Independent Detention Advisory Committee, welcomed the government’s decision to resume processing of Afghan asylum claims.

``There’s got to be some give and take in a crisis,″ he said, adding the protesters were seeking only ``small changes″ to policy.

The government locks up all refugees, including children, in Spartan detention centers while their applications are processed. About 3,000 people from the Middle East, South and Central Asia are languishing in five camps across the country.

Early Thursday, government officials removed five children from the camp amid fears they could be abused by adult detainees. Two children had already had their lips sewn together by others within the camps, officials said.

South Australia state Human Services Minister Dean Brown said seven other children were being examined for signs of abuse.

In Melbourne, more than 50 protesters stormed a federal government building housing the Department of Immigration offices to protest the treatment of detainees at Woomera. One man was arrested, police said.

Leading welfare organizations wrote to Ruddock on Thursday expressing their concern for the situation at Woomera.

``We are highly concerned that there will be deaths soon in this facility,″ said the open letter.

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