June 30, 2005

Refugees trapped in Australian camps-Amnesty

By Michael Perry

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Amnesty International called on Thursdayfor an end to Australia's mandatory detention of illegalimmigrants, saying that many asylum seekers spent years inremote, razor-wire camps before they were recognized asrefugees.

A new Amnesty report on the tough immigration policy alsosaid long-term detention was causing widespread mental illnessamong detainees who failed to understand why they were lockedup.

"We haven't any human rights. We are just like animals. Wedo not have a normal life like a human," said asylum seekerIbrahim Ishreti in the report, "The impact of indefinitedetention."

"Our feeling is dead. Our thinking is dead. We are very sadabout everything. We can't smile," said Ishreti, who is now outof detention on a bridging visa while his case is considered.

Amnesty said the amount of detainees being recognized asgenuine refugees after years in detention was "startling."

Nine out of 10 unauthorized arrivals who sought asylumbetween July 2002 and June 2003 turned out to be refugees,while a recent Australian human rights report found of 2,184children detained between 1999 and 2003, 92 percent were deemedrefugees.

In April this year, 20 asylum seekers, most of whom hadbeen detained for four years, were judged to need protectionand released from detention.

"It is a matter of concern that many asylum seekers whohave ultimately been recognized as refugees have been subjectto prolonged detention, in some instances as a result of errormade at various stages of the determination process," saidAmnesty.

Australia is a nation of migrants but has one of theworld's strictest immigration policies, detaining illegalarrivals, illegal workers and people who overstay visas.

The strict policy has helped conservative Prime MinisterJohn Howard win four consecutive elections.

Howard this month softened detention laws, to head off arevolt within his government, allowing children and families tobe released from custody while refugee claims are considered.But he was adamant mandatory detention would remain.

Amnesty said the changes were "a step toward a more humanerefugee policy" but the detention policy still breachedinternational human rights.

Australia has 897 people in detention, including 59children.


Amnesty said mandatory detention only ended up punishingpeople who had done nothing more than flee persecution.

"People seeking asylum in Australia from human rightsabuses in other countries are currently met with a system thatfurther violates their human rights," it said.

Mandatory detention often meant indefinite detention, aspeople argued their asylum case for years, Amnesty said citingcases where asylum seekers were rejected and became virtuallystateless after other countries refused to accept them.

Iraqi Abbas Al Khafaji fled to Syria around 1980 and thenAustralia in 2000 where he sought asylum. In 2001 his asylumcase was rejected and he requested to be returned to Syria, butSyria refused to receive him, said the report.

Khafaji remained in an Australian detention center untilMay 2005 when he was finally granted refugee status byAustralia's immigration minister, said Amnesty.

Amnesty said an estimated 150 people had been detained formore than three years as of May 2005. It said hunger strikes,suicide attempts and riots by asylum seekers was "symptomaticof the complete disempowerment of human beings."

It said that between January 2001 and April 2002 there were21 reported cases of children aged 10 to 18 attempting suicide.

Iranian Taza Orva arrived in Australia in January 2000 as a17-year-old boy on an Indonesian boat. During four years indetention in remote camps and centers, Orva attempted suicidefour times, before his released as a refugee in 2003.

"People would just wander from room to room complaining toeach other and getting depressed. People then started to harmthemselves," said Orva in the Amnesty report.