Australians march in support of refugees
Critics of the Australian Government's immigration policies today rallied in cities across Australia to press for the release of the mostly West Asian asylum-seekers held in detention.
Over 1,000 marchers staked out Government offices in Sydney and in Melbourne, more than 2,000 protesters took to the streets to call for the end of mandatory detention of those who arrive without a visa. Australia's camps hold around 2,000 asylum-seekers, a quarter of them Afghans, who wait months, even years, for a decision on their asylum claims.
The Melbourne rally organiser, Jody Betzien, said public opinion had switched on an issue that helped deliver the Prime Minister, John Howard, a landslide victory at last November's general election. ``Increasingly, people are seeing that these are normal human beings who have escaped persecution and got here by whatever means and deserved to be welcomed here,'' Mr. Betzien said. ``As this campaign grows, there's good potential that the Government will be forced to change it's policies on refugees,'' he said.
For months, the detention camps have been plagued by riots, hunger strikes, incidents of self harm and attempted break-outs. Mr. Howard is adamant that herding asylum-seekers into camps will remain Government policy so long as neighbouring countries like Malaysia and Indonesia turn a blind eye to people-smuggling.
Rather than switch tack, Mr. Howard last week offered Afghans who got to Australia by paying people-smugglers a refund if they agree to give up their asylum claims and go home.
Mr. Howard, who is visiting the United States, announced the offer of repatriation payments after a meeting in New York with Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai.
Mr. Howard told Mr. Karzai that many of the 4,000 Afghans currently in detention or on temporary stay permits would qualify for the plane tickets and repatriation allowance. There are around 1,000 in the camps and 3,000 on three-year visas that may or may not be extended and do not allow for family members to join them in Australia. DPA
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