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Australia Jails Child Refugees
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A 15-year-old refugee boy who grew up in an Afghan cave is desperate to go home even if it's just to "spend two days with my family and then be killed" rather than stay here. Dressed in her best clothes, a girl sits primly on a chair waiting to be interrogated. Each day she bravely comes and waits. One day, a visitor leans over to comfort her. The girl begins to cry uncontrollably.

These anguished stories come from kids in a prison camp—not in Guantánamo or Kandahar, but in the most desolate stretches of the Australian outback, where thousands of refugees from Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan have been jailed by the government of Australia. They have had to wait at least a year—some, more than three years—to have their asylum applications processed. In large demonstrations across Australia, activists have been clamoring for fair treatment of these people, who are being held indefinitely and incommunicado. The detainees include numerous women, babies, young girls and boys, and teenagers trying to escape Middle Eastern terror.

Their fate gained renewed attention last August, when a Norwegian cargo ship named the Tampa rescued 433 mainly Afghan refugees from a sinking boat and attempted to take them to Christmas Island, a remote Australian outcropping in the Indian Ocean. Australia has one of the most restrictive immigration policies in the world, aimed at protecting this Commonwealth outpost against the yellow hordes from Asia. So it was not especially surprising that John Howard, the conservative prime minister, refused to allow the refugees to come ashore and instead ordered the captain to dump them in nearby Indonesia. But the captain refused. The government then quickly passed the Border Protection Act, which changed the status of Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef (another place many refugees land) so as to make it impossible for anyone ending up there to seek asylum.

The measure became part of the government's much criticized new Pacific Solution, whereby it refuses shelter to refugees while cleverly trying to bribe different island nations into creating prisons to hold them. To give this policy the fig leaf of respectability, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees was brought in to process the helpless survivors. The first nation to take the bait was the tiny island nation of Nauru, a place once made enormously wealthy by its phosphate deposits. With phosphate reserves running low, Nauru now lives on realty investments and by hosting numerous Middle Eastern banks under protective laws that keep prying outsiders at bay. When Aussie officials tempted it with $30 million in public funding to set up a prison, the tiny nation jumped at the chance. The Aussie military built the camp and provided private security guards to run it. It now holds 1159 refugees, kept off-limits from the press.

Next, Australia cut a deal with Papua New Guinea to house refugees at the Lombrum Naval Base there, and as with Nauru, the press was banned. However, one journalist got in and reported that these desperate people had originally been told they were being taken to Australia and, when they discovered differently, threw themselves into the barbed-wire fences trying to escape, at which point guards put guns to their heads and ordered them back inside. Such was the despair that one man tried to commit suicide by jamming his fingers into a light bulb socket. Some 350 people are in this camp. Some, including children, are reported to have come down with malaria and tuberculosis and typhoid.

Australia then tried to convince Fiji and Tuvalu to take refugees, but they refused. So did the former UN trusteeship of Palau, whose U.S. ambassador Hersey Kyota told the Voice last week that the Aussies had offered $20 million from their coffers.

Within Australia itself, another 236 young people have been locked up in the desolate Woomera Detention Center, some for more than a year. Recently almost all of them went on a hunger strike, some sewing their lips closed. Others slashed themselves, including a 14-year-old boy who cut the word "Freedom" into his arm. Afghan and Iraqi teenagers formed a suicide pact and said that if not let go, they'd kill themselves. On January 29, guards stopped a 16-year-old boy from hanging himself. "I am getting crazy, I cut my hand, I can't talk to my mother," a 12-year-old girl told Australian human rights workers. "There is no solution for me—I just have to commit suicide. There is no choice."

Finally, reluctantly, the government acted, cutting some kind of deal—the details remain secret—which apparently promises faster processing and more interpreters. Some of the kids have been sent to the social services bureau for placement in foster homes.

While the faint of heart may be appalled at all this, the wreck of the Tampa was a godsend to the pathetic Howard, who was down on his luck and seemed likely to face defeat in the upcoming election. Suddenly he was resurrected as one tough dude ready to kick the yellow and brown varmints out of Aussie land. September 11 stiffened Australia's resolve to keep the kids locked up as part of the fight against terrorism. The government was determined to demonize these people, claiming that crazy Iraqi boat people were committing monstrous acts like throwing their babies into the sea, and as the defense minister put it, trying to "blackmail the Australian people." (Actually, people had jumped into the sea after an Aussie naval vessel fired on the ship.)

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