Voyage of hope ends in despair for boat people: Canberra's refugee policy is coming under fire, Robert Milliken writes from Sydney

THE FOUR boat people looked pale and downcast as they talked of their shattered dreams since their escape from Cambodia to Australia. 'Under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, I lived for three years, eight months and 20 days,' said one young woman. 'Here, I have lived for almost three years. In both places it's the same: I have life, but no freedom.'

In March 1990 the woman and her companions were among 118 Cambodians crammed aboard a fishing boat which landed near Broome, north-west Australia, having negotiated stormy seas infested with sharks and pirates.

From Broome, the authorities flew the boat people to Melbourne, where they spent 17 months in a detention centre. Next stop was another centre at Villawood, near Sydney, where they have spent the past 16 months behind barbed-wire, seeking asylum in Australia as refugees. More than 650 such boat people have landed in Australia since 1989, mainly from Cambodia, Vietnam and China.

Only 65 have been granted refugee status. Some have escaped from Australian detention camps, left the country voluntarily or been deported. The remaining 406 have had their refugee applications rejected but remain incarcerated while they fight last-ditch court battles to stay.

Canberra's policy of locking up boat refugees has come under mounting fire from bodies such as the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian Council of Churches.

In May the government rushed through legislation to remove the power of courts to release asylum- seekers from detention. In December, the High Court, Australia's final-appeal court, found this unconstitutional. As a result, cases will begin this week on behalf of three Cambodian women who went on hunger strike last year, challenging their refugee status refusals and alleging they have been detained unlawfully. It will be the forerunner for 100 other such challenges.

Villawood detention compound is a hot, barren place. Among the 100 Cambodians inside, there have been several suicide attempts in the past two and a half years. Ten babies have been born. Three young women and a man, who begged to remain anonymous, said they would rather die in Australia than return to Cambodia. Two said the Khmer Rouge had killed their fathers. One of the women said she thought her brother, too, had died. One day, during her year and a half in the Melbourne detention centre, he turned up to visit her. He had been accepted as a bona fide refugee from a camp on the Thai border and was leading a new life in Australia. Despite this, her own application remains rejected.

Andrew Biro, who worked at Villawood as a welfare officer for a year, was sacked two months ago after sending officials in the Immigration Department a paper criticising the policy of keeping boat people locked away for years waiting for their cases to be resolved. Mr Biro believes a policy of 'humane deterrence' has been adopted in Australia based on its use on Cambodians in Thai border camps. 'You give them nothing to maintain their self-sufficiency, hope and self-esteem. You give them nothing to think about except their problems. In the end, you try to break them in the hope that they'll eventually go back voluntarily. It's a slow and deliberate form of mental torture. In the case of many Cambodians, the Immigration Department has achieved where Pol Pot failed: to break their resolve.'

The Immigration Department and its minister, Gerry Hand, say the reason why about 90 cent of the Cambodians have been rejected is that they do not meet the United Nations definition of refugees, as people who would face a real chance of persecution if they returned to their country of origin. But critics say Canberra's response is linked to its desire to lend credibility to the peace process in Cambodia, in negotiation of which Australia played a central role.

The peace process shows signs of deteriorating in the lead-up to UN-sponsored polls planned for May. To allow the Cambodian boat people to stay, say the government's critics, would be an implicit admission by Canberra that the peace process had failed and that Cambodia was again descending into chaos.

Seth Richardson, a lawyer who has been assisting the boat people, spent a year at another detention camp, in remote Port Hedland in Western Australia, where he interviewed Cambodians who said they had been raped and beaten by the Khmer Rouge and had witnessed prisoners, including their parents, being killed. 'Their psychological state has deteriorated severely from the length of their detention in Australia. Under 'humane deterrence' they have nightmares.'

After he visited the Port Hedland camp last year, Barry Hickey, the Catholic Archbishop of Perth, called on Canberra to allow the boat people to stay for at least two years 'until a proper assessment can be made of the situation in Cambodia and Vietnam'.

(Photograph omitted)