Far from Guantanamo Bay, desperate Afghans try to grab the world's attention

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The children are the only link between the outside world and the rapidly overheating cauldron that is Woomera, a grim detention centre for illegal immigrants in the South Australian desert. They press their tearful faces against the windows of buses ferrying them to and from school in the nearby township; their halting pleas for freedom are broadcast nightly on the television news.

The children are the only link between the outside world and the rapidly overheating cauldron that is Woomera, a grim detention centre for illegal immigrants in the South Australian desert. They press their tearful faces against the windows of buses ferrying them to and from school in the nearby township; their halting pleas for freedom are broadcast nightly on the television news.

As Western nations, led by Britain, work themselves into a self-righteous lather about the treatment of al-Qa'ida fighters held at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba, conditions at Woomera have yet to elicit an international outcry despite increasingly desperate measures by detainees to draw attention to their plight.

More than 200 Afghan asylum-seekers – dozens of whom have sewn their lips together – refused food for the eighth day yesterday, while 40 people tried to poison themselves by swallowing shampoo and painkillers. Seven were taken to hospital, while there were reports of self-mutilation by children and adults.

The actions are the culmination of months of turmoil at the isolated, swelteringly hot camp, which was recently described as "a hellhole" by the former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser. There have been riots, arson attacks and mass escapes by the 900 immigrants incarcerated behind high, metal fences. The protests spread on Tuesday to Melbourne, where 32 people held at Maribyrnong detention centre went on hunger strike.

Ministers are unmoved, condemning the disturbances as attempts to blackmail immigration officials. But not everyone is prepared to toe the line. Yesterday one of the government's most senior advisers on immigration resigned, citing its vilification of "boat people" and the xenophobia that has swept Australia since the Tampa affair last August.

Neville Roach, chairman of the Council for Multicultural Australia, said: "Every time a humanitarian issue is raised in relation to asylum-seekers, their deviousness and criminal intent is proclaimed. The way that the government has handled these issues has given comfort to the prejudiced side of human nature. Compassion seems to have been thrown out of the door."

Mr Roach was an adviser to Philip Ruddock, the Immigration Minister, who on Monday told Afghans to go home if they did not like Woomera. He has admitted that conditions at the country's six detention centres are kept deliberately bleak, in the hope of deterring more boat people from making their way to Australian shores.

Delays in processing refugee claims mean that some detainees at Woomera – who are mainly from Afghanistan and the Middle East – have been at the camp since it opened two years ago.

The hunger-strikers are thought to be protesting about a decision to freeze all Afghan applications after the fall of the Taliban last month – and also, as the children remind us daily, about the fact that they are locked up at all. Most people held under Australia's policy of mandatory detention for all illegal immigrants are eventually recognised as refugees. The policy, which is unique among Western nations, has been in force since the mid-1990s, long before the Tampa, a Norwegian freighter, rescued 434 Afghans from a sinking boat in the Indian Ocean last year and attempted to deliver them to Australia.

Despite its bluster, the government – which refused to accept the Tampa's passengers, shipping them instead for assessment to New Zealand and the remote Pacific island of Nauru – is aware of the damage to its standing abroad.

Sydney-based foreign correspondents were recently summoned to a meeting with Mr Ruddock, who accused them of harming Australia's image abroad by "emotional and inaccurate" reporting of the refugee issue. He denied that there was a climate of xenophobia in Australia – although Mr Roach, who was born in India, would not agree.

A woman recently crossed the street to speak to his wife, Gladys, as she was wheeling her over-full garbage bin on to the pavement. "It was the first time it had ever happened to her, in 40 years of living in Australia," he said. "A woman actually walked up and said, 'Well, you people just throw your rubbish anywhere, don't you?' " His is not a lone voice. Despite the noisy approval of much of Middle Australia, which voted John Howard back into office last November, a substantial minority of people are horrified by the events of the past five months.

In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, a Catholic priest, Peter Dresser, wrote: "Whenever I see a photograph of the self-righteous Philip Ruddock, I feel a great sadness for him and his government policies, but a greater sadness for the demise of the compassionate heart of Australia I once knew and loved."

Mr Ruddock said yesterday that five children under 14 were to be removed from Woomera to prevent them from being coerced by adults into joining protests. Three boys were taken to hospital to have stitches extracted from their lips .

Like many children at the camp, the three were not accompanied by parents when they arrived in Australia. The incarceration of children in such circumstances has attracted bitter criticism, and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission plans to investigate Woomera.

A veil of secrecy shrouds Woomera and the other detention centres, with only a handful of lawyers and church groups allowed in. The media is denied access except on stage-managed visits during which it is forbidden from talking to detainees.

The refusal to open up the centres to scrutiny means, among other things, that the public is dependent on the government's version of events. Last year the government claimed, without checking, that a boatload of Iraqi asylum-seekers intercepted by the Australian Navy in the Indian Ocean had thrown children into the water to avoid being turned back. When it later received evidence to the contrary, it did not release it.

One recent visitor to Woomera was Michael Dudley, the chairman of Suicide Prevention Australia. He said people were introduced to him by number rather than name, and related "evidence of violence and despair in the filthy and blood-stained toilets".

He said: "There was not shade or a blade of grass in the compound. Younger children asked us why there are no flowers in Australia."

Comments