Australian Bishops Deplore Refugees´ Plight

Inhuman Conditions Reported in Woomera Camp

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MELBOURNE, Australia, JAN. 29, 2002 ( The Australian Catholic Bishops´ Conference said the country´s immigration policy was being implemented at «too high a moral cost.»

«I urge the government to respect the human dignity and rights of the asylum seekers, hear their cries for help, and heed the disquiet of the community,» said Archbishop Francis Carroll, conference president.

The archbishop was commenting on the situation of refugees detained at the Woomera center in the desert.

The archbishop requested that the women and children be sheltered in worthy premises and that the press be allowed to visit such shelters.

For the past two weeks, 250 refugees at the center have been on hunger strike. Today, the Immigration Ministry reported that 246 refugees are refusing food, and that nine of them have sewn up their lips.

The immigrants are protesting their detention conditions and the slow administrative process of which they are victims. Some of them have even drunk disinfectants, and one man was seriously wounded when he threw himself against the barbed wire.

Nine children have been hospitalized in critical condition and, according to a human rights lawyer who was allowed into the detention center, at least 15 Afghan orphans signed a pact for collective suicide. They are now under constant watch.

The archbishop´s appeal is a response to Prime Minister John Howard, who said that the behavior of the Woomera refugees is «moral blackmail» and that Australia´s asylum policy will not change.

Whoever arrives illegally in Australia is detained in such camps, at times in inhuman conditions. Requests for asylum are often buried in the bureaucracy.

The Australian government believes that the relaxation of the immigration policy would be the signal awaited by Indonesian smugglers to throw other desperate people onto Australia´s shores.

Some detainees have been in Woomera for two years. Many have been recognized as political refugees, but they continue to be inexplicably isolated from the world.

The International Red Cross published a newspaper announcement on Monday to express its own concern over the refugees´ conditions.

To date, few people have been able to visit the camp. They have described the situation as «inhuman.»

The Consultative Commission on the Detention of Immigrants, a government panel, has requested the closure of the Woomera detention center, warning of the risks of a «human tragedy of unforeseen proportions» if the detainees of this center are not moved to another place.

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