by Bob Burton
(A) CANBERRA --
summit of 10 refugee community support groups on Friday sought an end to the "limbo-like" status of 308 asylum seekers, mostly from Afghanistan and Iraq, stranded in an Australian government-funded immigration detention centre on the Pacific island nation of Nauru.
There is a need for urgent international attention given the deteriorating conditions in the centre and worsening health problems there, says Howard Glenn, director of A Just Australia, the national umbrella group of refugee advocacy groups.
"The government is pushing the one option which is to keep them there until they can't stand it any more and go back to life-threatening situations ... It is a form of torture that is going on and it just gets worse over time," he said.
Releasing the report 'Two Years and Counting' at the end of the conference Friday on the plight facing the people held on Nauru, Glenn said the health of those remaining in the centre was deteriorating the longer they were held there.
Among those on Nauru are 90 children, including five who are without their parents and a baby born on Mar. 19 this year.
A Just Australia reports that from correspondence with those detained on Nauru, there was an outbreak of dengue fever in March 2003, reports of malaria, a woman going blind but remaining untreated and another with an untreated back injury sustained when brought aboard a naval vessel.
But the Australian government's Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Aboriginal Affairs (DIMIA) disputes that there are significant untreated health problems.
"Sickness is not widespread and in fact the level of treatment available to asylum seekers is not generally available except in developed countries with high standards of medical care," it states on its website.
Glenn acknowledges that there are difficulties verifying the claims, but argues that the ban by the government of Nauru "acting in concert" with the Australian government prevents journalists, priests and community groups from visiting the centre and independently checking the claims.
The detention centre on Nauru was established in 2001, when the Australian government was desperately seeking to find countries that were willing to take asylum seekers -- intercepted by a naval blockade to prevent them from landing on Australia -- for as long as it took to process their asylum claims.
Of the 308 still held in the International Organisation for Migration (IOM)-administered centre on Nauru, approximately 50 have opted to accept Australian government sponsorship of their return home. The rest have refused.
At the conclusion of the summit, the coalition of groups called for the Australian government to scrap the "so-called voluntary return of people to Afghanistan planned for Dec. 1, 2003 as it is clearly unsafe, noting that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has withdrawn from Afghanistan."
The minister for immigration, Amanda Vanstone, was travelling in a remote area and unavailable for comment.
However, on its website DIMIA insists that for those still held on Nauru, the government is committed to "an appropriate humanitarian response" consistent with "meeting our responsibilities in maintaining the integrity of our borders and migration programs."
The summit coincides with a hearing in the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory over the legality of the Australian government towing back to Indonesia a boatload of 14 Kurdish asylum seekers that landed on Australian shores on Nov. 4.
In a hearing on Nov. 6 and 7, the director of the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission, Susan Cox, had sought a direction from the court that the detention of the 14 by the Australian government was illegal and that they should be provided with access to legal advice.
Justice Dean Mildren dismissed the application but deferred publication of his reasons until Thursday.
Releasing his reasons, Mildren said that while supporting an earlier Federal Court precedent on a similar application as the legal basis for dismissing the application, he was scathing about the actions of the Australian government.
Mildren said he found it "incredible" that the assistant secretary of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, John Eyers, had been unable to tell the court whether any of the 14 men on the boat had asked for asylum or sought legal help.
"It is plain," Mildren stated that from the evidence presented to the court, "that the policy of the government was to operate as clandestinely as possible and to provide no access to the plaintiff or her officers and no information to the plaintiff or to the public through the media to the extent that this could be avoided."
"Attempts to prevent the media from coming anywhere near the vessel were made by the imposition of a 3,000 metre exclusion zone over the (Melville) Island and the closing of the airport to prevent the media as well as others from getting to the island. Behaviour of this kind usually implies that there is something to hide," Mildren stated.
At the time both the Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer and Vanstone claimed that the men they had not requested asylum. "They didn't apply for asylum when they were in contact with Australian authorities, or with the Australians themselves on Melville Island," Downer said at the time.
Both later acknowledged after the men were back in Indonesia that they had requested asylum in Australia.
Refugee support groups have accused the Australian government of a flagrant violation of international treaty obligation by refusing to hear the men's request for asylum and returning them to Indonesia, which has indicated they may be forced to return to Turkey.
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