Australian church groups offer sanctuary to detained refugees

 Heads of several Australian church and welfare groups wrote a strong letter to Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock last week, urging him to free refugees held in Woomera detention centre. Expressing fears that there would soon be deaths at the facility, the letter accused the government of incarcerating children and causing unnecessary suffering. Calling for the centre to be closed, the agencies offer to provide accommodation and support to asylum seekers in their communities. In recent months there have been mounting protests at the treatment of asylum seekers in Australia. Every year Australia takes in 10,000 refugees who are formally resettled by the United Nations and another 50,000 permanent migrants, mainly from Britain and New Zealand. Since last August, the authorities have intensified their efforts to discourage illegal immigration - intercepting boatloads of asylum seekers before they reach Australia. These are shipped to the Pacific islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea to have their claims assessed there. Those who do make it to Australia find themselves facing one of the most draconian asylum regimes in the world, where they are automatically detained in 'immigration centres'. Most are kept for a few months, but some can spend up to five years locked away. There have been dozens of protests inside the six main detention camps in the last 18 months, including a mass breakout by 500 asylum seekers at Woomera and a riot that lasted for three days in December, which left 21 security guards injured. Dozens of suicide attempts have been reported. One group is now currently on hunger strike. Human rights campaigners are particularly concerned at the number of children caught up in the crisis. Dr Michael Dudley, a psychiatrist who has recently been inside Woomera, believes the authorities are wrong to detain children. He said: "I believe the government has failed in its duty of care. I think that these children are severely distressed, depressed and traumatised. It's a punitive situation - it's basically an us/them mentality, it turns them into objects and criminals." Amnesty International said: "No other western country detains children in circumstances, and to the extent, that Australia does." The agency calls on the Australian government to find humane alternatives to detention when processing families with children and of unaccompanied minors. Most of the detainees inside Woomera are from the Middle East and Afghanistan, and are angry at long delays in the processing of visas. Those whose claims for refugee status are rejected are deported. But there is a lengthy appeal system. Afghans are by far the largest group in the immigration centres, making up more than a quarter of all detainees. The Australian Government denies there is a deliberate policy of slowing down the investigation of refugee claims to frustrate those behind the razor-wire fences. Immigration officials say security checks on all refugee applicants are taking longer following the 11 September attacks in the United States. text of the letter follows: Dear Mr Ruddock, We are writing regarding the crisis in Woomera Immigration Detention Centre, seeking to assist the Federal Government in resolving the situation. We are aware that for the majority of the detainees, their protest action is not currently about obtaining visas but about their strong feeling that it is inhumane to incarcerate them in a harsh desert location for lengthy periods of time as if they are criminals. The merits of individual cases are not the issue here. Their absolute despair and in many cases the profound trauma they are suffering is driving their determination to persist with this protest. We are highly concerned that there will be deaths soon in this DIMIA facility. As you will be aware, Woomera is a facility that was never designed for long term detainees. The intention was for people to be held for three to four months rather than 12- 24 months or indefinitely. The high levels of self-harm preceding this latest crisis indicate profound systemic problems in this facility that are not resolvable in any permanent fashion. Similarly, the incarceration of approximately 250 children in any Australian Government facility is highly undesirable and is not in keeping with the UNHCR Guidelines on Detention of Asylum Seekers or Australia's obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. We trust that you would see it as Australia's responsibility and priority to adhere to these guidelines and human rights which are designed specifically to avoid such a humanitarian crisis. We wish to work with your Department in resolving the current crisis. We offer the combined resources and networks of our respective organisations to assist in securing the release into the care of our community, of: 1. all children with their parents; 2. all single males and females not considered a threat to the Australian community or not awaiting immediate return to their country of origin (if possible). Such release from Woomera should be phased with children and their families a priority for release into the care of community organisations. This offer is consistent with discussions that some of our agencies have had with your Immigration Detention Advisory Group about community release. It is a viable option and many hundreds of refugees seeking asylum already live in the community and receive assistance from our organisations. Our organisations supported refugees living in the community in the 1980s and 1990s. We urge you to create a visa class for community release for long-term detainees who have failed in their claims but cannot be repatriated due to a lack of agreement with their countries. We will assist in providing accommodation and community support for the refugees while their claims are processed. As you would be aware, the release of certain cases into the care of the community already occurs from some DIMIA facilities. As you will be aware, no unauthorised asylum seeker released on a bridging visa in Australia from 1996-1998 failed to meet their reporting obligations to DIMA. We feel confident that with efforts by DIMA, coupled with cooperation of the refugees and our organisations, that similar compliance rates can be secured in 2002. We feel confident that, together with your Department, we can treat people in a humane way while their claims are assessed which would remove many of the causes of the ongoing crisis and humanitarian dilemmas that your Department and ACM are currently facing. We are prepared to enter into negotiations with your Department immediately to discuss the logistics of such community release. There has been detailed work done on community release by the Justice for Asylum Seekers Alliance based on existing cases of community release in Australia and overseas experience. We do so in a spirit of humanitarianism and sense of decency of Australians gravely concerned at the systemic problems of Woomera and the unnecessary suffering caused under the current system. There is no further need for this particular institution which has become dysfunctional. Woomera should be closed. We wish to work with you to resolve this crisis. We encourage you to embrace a spirit of reform and partnership. We would be grateful if your staff could make this letter available to Mr John Hodges, Chairman and Members of the Immigration Detention Advisory Group. We look forward to your earliest response. Yours faithfully, Marc Purcell, Executive Officer, Catholic Commission for Justice Development and Peace (Melb). On behalf of: Rev David Pargeter, director justice and world mission, Uniting Church in Australia, Synod in Victoria Fr Joe Caddy, executive director, Catholic Social Services Fr Nic Frances, executive director, Brotherhood of St Lawrence Dale West, executive director, Centrecare Adelaide Margaret Reynolds, president, United Nations Association of Australia Brenda Hubber, executive secretary, Catholic Migrant and Refugee office Melbourne Sr Margaret Fyfe, Brigidine community for justice Mr Syd Tutton, state president, St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria Mr Toby O'Connor, national Director, Catholic Welfare Australia, Curtin ACT sources: Catholic Telecom/BBC For more information & links visit: Catholic Telecommunications - the Australian Catholic news service.

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