Stuck in the outback, refugees in Australia riot

The government bristles at criticism over its treatment of asylum seekers.

Beth Kirby moved to the South Australian desert town of Woomera to get away from crowds. "I like the isolation," she says.

But last November, new neighbors moved in. Now there's a constant din, and at night the lights that shine into her backyard keep her awake. A few months ago hundreds of her neighbors broke down their fence and rushed by, screaming something she couldn't understand. But this week took the cake: Ms. Kirby's neighbors staged a full-blown riot and set fire to six buildings.

A few hundred yards from the Kirby home is a government facility housing 800 detainees, which means Beth and her husband, David, live and work next door to one of Australia's most perplexing questions: how to handle the increased number of boat people seeking asylum here in the past two years.

The numbers are striking. In 1989, one boat carrying 26 people (from China, Vietnam, and Cambodia) landed on Australian shores, and in 1998 just 200 boat people arrived in Australian waters. But last year, 86 boats carried 3,720 asylum seekers - mostly from Afghanistan, China, and Iraq - into Australian waters. And, according to the Australian Department of Immigration, the trend is continuing. Between January and July 11 this year, another 25 boats have arrived carrying another 1,345 people, mostly Afghans and Iraqis.

Australia isn't alone in facing this new tide. Through the 1990s, conflicts around the world have caused a new post-cold-war wave of refugees seeking asylum in industrialized countries. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there were some 11.7 million refugees around the world in 1999 and some 1.18 million people seeking asylum.

But almost 30 years after the end of the "white Australia" policy that for decades excluded anyone without European ancestry from emigrating to Australia, immigration is still an intensely emotional subject here. Partly as a result of that, Australia is alone in the harsh way it deals with the boat people, refugee advocates say.

"We're the only country that detains all people that arrive without documentation, whether they are a risk to the community or not," says Margaret Piper, director of the Refugee Council of Australia.

Monday's riot capped months of protests over conditions at the Woomera Detention Center. About 80 people were involved, setting fire to a cafeteria, a toilet block, and four other buildings, and throwing homemade spears and rocks at authorities, who used a water cannon and tear gas to bring them under control. Authorities took the alleged ringleaders to the city of Adelaide, a six-hour drive away, where they are expected to face charges.

"There is no way that I, the government, nor, I think, the Australian people, will be coerced by behavior of this sort," said Australia's immigration minister, Philip Ruddock.

Mr. Ruddock says the riot was caused by troublemakers angry over the fact they are likely to be denied visas to stay in Australia. But refugee groups say the riot and incidents like the mass breakout of about 500 boat people earlier this year are simply the result of growing frustrations over spartan conditions at the center and their isolation in detention, which can last from a month to five years.

The area around Woomera used to be a British rocket-launch site. Around town you can still see twisted pieces of metal that fell off rockets as they hurtled toward space. In other words, says Ms. Piper, Woomera is so remote no one ever worried about rocket parts falling to the ground hitting anybody.

The living conditions at Australia's six mostly remote detention centers have drawn condemnation from UN committees and human rights groups like Amnesty International. They say mandatory detention and measures to try to make the country a less attractive destination infringe on the rights of the boat people, adults and children. Measures passed last year include a three-year "temporary protection" visa - upon expiration the holder must leave - and curtailing access to the welfare system.

The government has reacted angrily to the criticism. This week, it said it would withdraw from UN committees as a result of UN criticism of its treatment of asylum seekers and Aborigines.

Thomas Keneally, the Australian author who penned the novel behind the Stephen Spielberg film "Schindler's List," says despite the increasingly multicultural nature of Australia, its people still have a lingering anxiety about migrants. "In a way, all the old suspicion of the 1950s and before - all the old edginess about our geopolitical position [in Asia] - you can see rising to the top again," he says.

Immigration, legal or illegal, is a hot issue for Australia, a country almost the size of the United States, with a population of just 19 million.

Business leaders say the current, relatively modest immigration program needs to be expanded if Australia is to have a chance to compete in the world. But some, like Bob Carr, the premier of Sydney's home state of New South Wales, contend Australia, with its narrow band of arable coast around a harsh interior, just can't handle increased immigration environmentally. Already, Mr. Carr says, Sydney's capacity is being stretched.

The issue also has political implications. In recent years, immigration, particularly from Asia, has been a lightning rod for discontent exploited by the far-right One Nation Party, which grabbed 10 percent of the vote in the 1998 election.

One Nation has since sputtered, and most consider it a spent political force. But with polls showing the ruling conservative coalition and the main opposition Labor Party shaping up for a close race next year, critics say the government has been courting the mostly rural One Nation voters on issues like immigration. "They know that whenever they comment on those issues they are drawing people back into the fold," says Piper, of the Refugee Council. "You've got some very skillful wedge politics being played."

Whatever the government's motivation, Beth Kirby seems to agree with what she sees it doing in Woomera. "It just seems to be a lot of money wasted on people who don't appreciate they're being helped," she says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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