Family's Asylum Fight Spotlights Australia's Refugee Woes

In a case study that has proved to be a microcosm of the problems plaguing Australia's illegal-entry asylum policies, Baktiyari had no idea his family members, who he says he left in his village in the Uruzgan province of central Afghanistan, had made it to Australia with his brother.

It was a former Woomera detainee who informed him that his family was in the camp. Since then, he has met his wife and children only twice although he is allowed phone calls.

But all attempts to reunite the family has proved unsuccessful as the case has hardened the lines between human rights groups on one side and the Australian Immigration Department on the other.

Tough Policy on Illegal Immigration

Australia has traditionally been relatively generous to refugees whose status has been determined before they land on Australian shores to be resettled legally.

But when it comes to the treatment of spontaneous asylum-seekers who arrive illegally, mostly on boats via Indonesia, Australia has one of the toughest policies in the world.

Although rights groups have identified many areas of concern, Australia's detention of asylum-seekers while their cases are being assessed — a process that can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of years — has earned harsh international criticism.

"Our position on this is well known," says Kris Janowski, a spokesman for the Geneva-based UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). "We oppose the detention of asylum seekers, especially the detention of minors. In our view, people can be detained only for a short time while their identity is being determined."

The only other developed country with comparable policies is the United States, which detains all asylum seekers arriving on its shores illegally.

But while U.S. law allows for a judicial review of asylum cases, experts say a controversial 1998 law has severely limited the Australian courts' ability to review asylum decisions, thereby effectively removing appeal rights.

In the latest in a series of condemnations by international organizations, a report by the U.N High Commissioner for Human Rights released last month, called Australia's policy of detaining asylum seekers in remote camps "inhuman and degrading."

But on its part, the Australian government has repeatedly defended its detention policy. In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation earlier this month, Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said the report, "ignores the fact that people in immigration detention have either become unlawful or have arrived in Australia without lawful authority."

Spotlight on Woomera

Besides the legal concerns regarding the possible arbitrary nature of detention, rights groups have also raised alarms over the conditions under which asylum-seekers are detained, often in remote locations, with little regard for keeping family units together.

In the past few years, international attention on the detention conditions has focused on the Woomera Detention Center situated in a former rocket testing range in the hostile, virtually uninhabited southern Australian desert, where temperatures can exceed 140 degrees F.

Once the largest detention center for illegal immigrants in Australia, Woomera has been the site of a spate of protests by inmates and activist groups in recent years.

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