Australia relents after suicide bid by refugees

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The Independent Online

The Australian government lifted its freeze on processing asylum applications yesterday after at least three refugees tried to hang themselves with bedsheets at Woomera detention centre.

The Australian government lifted its freeze on processing asylum applications yesterday after at least three refugees tried to hang themselves with bedsheets at Woomera detention centre.

The concession from Canberra came after more than 200 Afghan refugees had mutilated themselves and spent nine days on hunger strike. Some sewed their lips together in protest or gulped down poisonous cocktails of shampoo and detergent.

In a mass-suicide attempt overnight on Wednesday, a 16-year-old boy was injured and all those who tried to take their own lives, including Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, Sri Lankans and Vietnamese, were put in isolation, a pressure group called Refugee Action Collective said.

Detainees told the group that 15 people had tried to commit suicide. Philip Ruddock, the Immigration Minister, said two men and the 16-year-old boy had tried to hang themselves, but that all were found in time and suffered no injuries.

The suicide attempt appears to have been the final straw for the immigration department, which promptly lifted the suspension on refugee claims from about 2,000 Afghan asylum- seekers that has been in place since the Taliban regime was overthrown in November.

Mr Ruddock, rebuffing claims that he was giving in to protesters, said the processing of applications had been impossible until now because of events in Afghanistan. He said his decision to lift the freeze was made after he heard the report of an independent advisory group that visited the Woomera camp earlier this week.

Twenty-one detainees were released after having their applications approved yesterday – 19 Iraqis, two Iranians and one Afghan, the last being one of the 200 on hunger strike.

"We have not compromised the determination system at all," Mr Ruddock said. "We have certainly clarified some misunderstandings about the way in which it operates."

He has previously admitted that conditions at detention camps are kept deliberately bleak to deter more boat people from coming to Australia.

The mounting trouble at the camp, where about 900 people are held, has led to widespread criticism of the federal government's immigration policy. The government locks up all refugees, including children, in remote detention centres while their asylum applications are processed. About 3,000 people from the Middle East and south and central Asia are currently languishing in six camps.

In June 2000, Afghan and Iraqi detainees rioted in protest at the conditions at the sweltering desert camp in Woomera, South Australia.

About 8,000 refugees, a low number by international standards, have arrived in Australia over the past two years, coming in boatloads to the country's northern shores and islands via south-east Asia.

John Howard, the Prime Minister, has taken a hard line on immigration, but not everyone agrees. On Wednesday, Neville Roach, one of the government's most senior advisers on immigration, resigned, citing the vilification of "boat people" and the xenophopia that seems to be sweeping Australia.

Tim Flannery, a prominent scientist who gave a national address on Wednesday evening on Britain's colonisation of the sub-continent in 1788, also expressed reservations. "It takes away from us a certain pride that we have in being Australian, it leaves our reputation damaged overseas and it's the result of poor planning," he said.

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