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Woomera shows perils of detaining asylum seekers

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Woomera shows perils of detaining asylum seekers

1 February 2002

GENEVA - While welcoming the end of protests in Australia's Woomera detention centre, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees today urged Canberra to review its policy of detaining asylum seekers.

"Recent events in Australian immigration detention centres are a stark reminder of the concerns of the international community regarding the detention of asylum seekers," said High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers. "Among asylum seekers there may be refugees who have fled persecution, and many have suffered torture and trauma in their countries of origin. These refugees should not be put through an additional ordeal."

UNHCR said its opposition to detention of all asylum seekers, especially prolonged detention and detention of minors, was enshrined in the policy guidelines of UNHCR's Executive Committee, the agency's governing body. Australia is a member. While recognising the legitimate concerns of governments to protect national security, the guidelines state that the detention of asylum seekers - especially children - is inherently undesirable.

The UNHCR statement follows two weeks of tense protests at Woomera detention centre, including a hunger strike and threats of self-mutilation by the detainees.

UNHCR said it could not condone acts of violence and self-harm by detainees. But it also said it was greatly concerned about the recent public vilification of asylum seekers. The agency urged governments to show leadership in providing accurate and up-to-date information on asylum seekers and promoting a public debate based on facts rather than negative stereotyping.

UNHCR said it was concerned about calls in Australia for a speedy return of asylum seekers to Afghanistan, where some of the Woomera detainees come from. It cited a precarious security situation in many parts of the country, as well as continued problems faced by some of Afghanistan's ethnic groups.