Australia 'tortures' refugees, says author

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The Independent Online

As protests by asylum-seekers spread to a third Australian detention camp, Booker Prize-winning author Peter Carey has launched a furious attack on his native country – branding its immigration policy "morally repugnant".

In an interview with the BBC, the writer condemned as "torture" and "total terror" the confinement of refugees in the Outback, and accused the country's right-wing Liberal government of "diminishing" its people with its intolerant conduct.

His scathing criticisms came as the scale of unrest among asylum-seekers reached new heights following 11 days of hunger strikes, lip-sewings and attempted suicide by hanging at the Woomera camp in the South Australian desert.

Yesterday saw a mass riot by 200 detainees, some armed with iron bars, who clambered onto roofs at the centre, chanting "visa, visa". One man was taken to hospital after becoming caught up in razor wire while trying to scale its perimeter fence.

In a show of solidarity with protesters at Woomera and Maribyrnong, which has also seen unrest, a hunger strike broke out at the Curtin detention centre, 800 miles north of Perth. Five of those detained, four Iranians and an Afghan, were admitted to hospital after swallowing antiseptic.

Speaking on Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Carey accused the Australian authorities of over-reacting to "a very tiny" immigration problem, and trying to terrify the world into fearing "punishment and torture" at their hands. And he criticised them for brushing over the fact that they too hailed from "a nation of immigrants".

"It's just total terror," he said. "The number of people they are talking about is comparatively small – in comparison with what, say, Britain is facing at the moment.

"They have developed a very punitive policy, presumably because they want the whole damn world to know that if anyone comes to Australia they are going to be punished and tortured."

Mr Carey, 59, who became the first author to win the Booker twice when he collected the award for True History of the Kelly Gang last year, added: "Every nation has the right to defend its borders and decide who's going to come to the country, but you don't want people to be tortured because of it, and that's what's happening with these people." Mr Carey, who lives in New York, said he believed the public was turning against the leadership.

"There are governments that are better than we are and there are those that diminish us, and I think this is a government that diminishes us and people have begun to realise this," he said.

Such outspoken condemnation from one of Australia's most distinguished writers amounts to a huge embarrassment for Prime Minister John Howard, whose re-election last year was seen as an endorsement of his tough asylum policy. In an effort to quell mounting international criticism, Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock used a speech marking Australia Day yesterday to boast about the country's history of tolerance. A series of ceremonies were also held to confer citizenship on some 8,100 recent immigrants.

Woomera first earned its notoriety long before it became one of Australia's six asylum detention centres. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was the headquarters for Britain's long-range missile tests.