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UNHCR urges Australia to review policy of detaining asylum seekers

UNHCR urges Australia to review policy of detaining asylum seekers

UNHCR welcomes the end of protests by asylum seekers at the Woomera detention centre, but urges the Australian government to review its policy of detaining asylum seekers.
1 February 2002
A young boy -- detained with his mother by Hungarian border police for 24 hours -- clowns for visitors.

GENEVA, Feb. 1 (UNHCR) - The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Friday welcomed the end of protests by asylum seekers in Australia's Woomera detention centre, but urged the government in Canberra to review its policy of detaining those who seek asylum.

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

On Wednesday some 200 detainees at the Woomera centre agreed to end their two-week hunger strike, and 11 teenagers withdrew a suicide threat they vowed to carry out at 5 p.m. local time if they were not taken out of the camp.

In recent weeks detainees from Afghanistan and the Middle East have tried to hang themselves, refused water and food, and sewn their lips to protest the months and even years the Australian government takes to process asylum claims.

In its statement Wednesday the refugee agency said that its opposition to detaining asylum seekers, especially prolonged detention and the detention of minors, was "enshrined" in the policy guidelines of its Executive Committee, the agency's governing body of which 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 statement added.

The statement added that the agency was "greatly concerned about the recent public vilification of asylum seekers." It 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 also said it was worried about calls in Australia for a speedy return to Afghanistan of asylum seekers from that country. 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.