Family's Asylum Fight Spotlights Australia's Refugee Woes

Rights groups have been particularly disturbed by what is called incidents of "self-harm," where detainees have sewn their lips, sliced their wrists, launched hunger strikes and even attempted suicide.

And a recent U.N. report warned about what has been called a pervasive "collective depression" among children in detention in Australia.

According to government figures, as of May 2002, there were 1,495 persons in immigration detention, 65 of whom were female minors and 105 male minors. Woomera itself has 35 children among the 230 detainees.

Offshore Island Camps

At its peak, Woomera hosted just under a thousand illegal immigrants, but the number of detainees have been falling following government plans to "scale down" the center.

Although a new detention facility is currently under construction in the southern Australian town of Baxter, Australia's recent policy of paying Pacific island nations to take in "boatpeople" has been condemned as cruel and demeaning.

Last year, Australia showed it was serious about stemming the flow of boatpeople on its shores when it refused entry to 433 mainly Afghan refugees in August, who were picked up by the Tampa, a Norwegian freighter, near Australia's Christmas Island.

A high-tension international stand-off ended only when neighboring New Zealand and the island of Nauru agreed to take the boatpeople — the latter in return for payment. Since then, Australia has also done a deal with Papua New Guinea.

International monitors visiting the island camps however, have sharply criticized the conditions there. In a report put together for Amnesty International in December, John Pace, a former U.N. official described the camps in Nauru as "hellish" and "Dante-like."

A Front-Burner Political Issue

Nearly 50 years after Australia revoked its now-infamous "White Australia policy," some experts say a fear of being "swamped" by "hordes" of Asians lingers on in the Australian psyche despite a concerted move towards "cultural pluralism" during the early 1970s.

But while immigration has been a longstanding issue, with waves of Vietnamese and Cambodian boatpeople arriving on Australian shores during the '70s and '80s, the current administration, led by Prime Minister John Howard, has made the unauthorized arrival of asylum seekers a front-burner political issue.

Three months after the Tampa incident, Howard won a third term in office on a wave of what some commentators called "widespread political support" for his immigration policies.

"There has been a deliberate strategy of the current government to popularize the issue of detention and to cultivate fear," says Eve Lester, Refugee Coordinator of the London-based Amnesty International. "It has become a very powerful election issue now."

Questioning the Case

And in a climate where the lines between activists and ordinary Australians supporting refugee rights on one side and those in favor of tough policies on the other are drawn, the Baktiyari case has turned into the center of an increasingly acrimonious storm.

While some commentators have charged that the case has been emotionally manipulated by rights groups, others have expressed concern over the government's publicly hardening immigration stance.

While the Department of Immigration has said the family is in fact Pakistani, the Baktiyaris insist they are Hazaras who fled central Afghanistan for Pakistan before making their way to Australia.

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