UNHCR urges Australia to review policy of detaining asylum seekers

Ruud Lubbers

1 February 2002 – While welcoming the end of protests in Australia's Woomera detention centre, the head of the United Nations refugee agency 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," UN High Commissioner for Refugees 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."

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.

The agency also said it was "greatly concerned about the recent public vilification of asylum seekers" and 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."

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

On Wednesday some 200 detainees 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.

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