Australian police investigate child abuse claims

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The Independent Online

The Austrailian government bowed to pressure yesterday to investigate allegations of systematic sexual abuse of children at a privately run detention centre for illegal immigrants.

The Austrailian government bowed to pressure yesterday to investigate allegations of systematic sexual abuse of children at a privately run detention centre for illegal immigrants.

The inquiry follows claims by staff at the Woomera centre that managers suppressed evidence about the rape of a 12-year-old boy by his father last April. The man, an asylum-seeker, is also said to have sold his son to other detainees for cigarettes.

Woomera, which is run by Australasian Correction Management (ACM), a subsidiary of an American prison company, is one of several remote centres around Australia where illegal immigrants - mainly "boat people" from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan - are mandatorily detained while their applications for asylum are processed.

Woomera is in the south Australian desert near a former missile testing range used by Britain in the Fifties. Human rights groups have criticised conditions in the camps as well as their isolated locations. Detainees are unable to contact relatives already in Australia or the support networks from their ethnic communities.

Australia has long operated a quota system that allows a certain number of migrants to settle here each year, based on their skills and wealth. But it faces the same dilemma as European nations in dealing with asylum-seekers who arrive uninvited on its shores, often without papers.

Refugee support groups have accused John Howard's conservative government of turning a blind eye to the oppressive regime in the detention centres, saying ministers overlooked it in the hope of deterring other asylum-seekers from heading to Australia.

Philip Ruddock, the Immigration Minister, boasted last weekend that the number ofillegal immigrants had dropped substantially this year. MrRuddock has played down the allegations of abuse at Woom-era, but yesterday he said he was "concerned that the material is sufficiently serious to warrant an investigation".

Woomera, a grim, forbidding compound surrounded by a razor-wire fence, opened a year ago. Inmates rioted in June and staged a mass break-out in August to protest at conditions and at their length of stay: 12 months now, in some cases. The camp is currently home to about 300 people, 30 of whom are on hunger strike.

Social workers say that the environment - with adults and children housed together, as well as different ethnic groups - is conducive to abuse.

South Australian police said yesterday that they had reopened an inquiry into allegations of widespread child abuse. The alleged rape victim was removed from Woomera yesterday and placed in the care of social services.

A former nurse has claimed that she was pressured into tearing up her report on the boy. She says that when he was brought to the centre's clinic after the alleged rape, a health services co-ordinator "told us that we didn't understand their customs and not to interfere with things that we didn'tunderstand".

Louis Schetzer, director of the National Children's and Youth Law Centre, said: "Woomera is the 21st-century equivalent of throwing people into a prison hulk."

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