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On Australia Day, the commemoration of the birth of the nation, Aussies are divided about how to treat asylum-seekers who enter the country illegally. The conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard, which won re-election last November in large part because of its get-tough attitude to refugees, insists that all asylum-seekers be incarcerated while their cases are processed in order to discourage illegal immigration. Currently, around 2,700 people—most from Afghanistan, Iran, or Iraq—are in detention, including 600 children, many of whom arrived unaccompanied by family members. Tensions in the camps rose when the government froze asylum applications from Afghans after the fall of the Taliban regime, exacerbating the slow adjudication process. (This freeze has now lifted.) In recent weeks, detainees protested their conditions by refusing food, swallowing cocktails of detergent and shampoo, attempting to hang themselves with bed sheets, and even sewing up their mouths.

The largest of the detention centers, Woomera in the South Australian desert, described by Britain’s Independentas “isolated” and “swelteringly hot,” is often compared to Guantanamo Bay’s “Camp X-Ray.” A letter to the Sydney Morning Herald declared, “To place asylum seekers in a camp for criminals, as Woomera appears to be, in an affluent and supposedly enlightened country is a cruelty quite comparable with those committed by the Taliban in Afghanistan in their poverty and ignorance.” The Independent agreed: “All of the attention that has rightly been focused on the treatment of the Taliban and al-Qa’ida prisoners held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay should not blot out an even uglier drama that is being played out on the other side of the world.”

Opponents are particularly outraged by the detention of children. The Ageof Melbourne reported Monday that 15 kids being held at Woomera made a suicide pact because they felt desperate and isolated from the rest of the detainees because of their age. The Australian said that just as there is no excuse for asylum-seekers using children to win concessions from the government, “neither is there any for the Government’s use of children as a means of achieving its end—deterring other boatpeople. Indeed, the Government exposes children to danger, then threatens to take them away from their parents. … [T]he Government must house children in the community, away from danger.” Last week, the Canberra Timesalso decried the policy:

That a five-year-old boy, who has committed no crime, can be put into detention in Australia for nearly a year should be offensive to the vast majority of Australians. Alas, apparently it is not. The Government feels it can continue with this abhorrent policy because it is popular. It may be popular, but it is not right.

The Sydney Morning Herald opposed mandatory detention: “A policy of interning asylum seekers seems to suggest that the Government expects most of them to fail in their claims for refugee status. … [I]n fact, about 75 per cent succeed.” The editorial concluded, “Its value as a deterrent must be weighed against its corrosive effect on the cohesiveness of the wider community.” The Australian concurred: “A streamlined system that quickly deported or imprisoned failed applicants would deter fraudsters just as well as the current regime, which allows shonks to foment unrest for months and still … get a visa.”

While agreeing that the adjudication policy should be accelerated and that jailing genuine refugees with criminals and fakers “increases the chances of trouble,” the Brisbane Courier-Mail supported the government’s stance:

It is not an act of prejudice to support a tough policy on illegal immigration and people smuggling. … Now the Taliban has been toppled, it is not unreasonable for those Afghan asylum seekers who claimed they feared persecution if they returned home to be asked to restate their case. … [R]eform can be implemented without any signals being sent that Australia is a soft touch for illegal immigrants.

Manacled like me: The Daily Mirror’s empathy correspondent “re-created the barbaric conditions in which America is keeping its prisoners” by donning blacked-out goggles, ear mufflers, shackles, and a “suffocating orange boiler suit,” as worn by “the al-Qaeda suspects locked behind razor wire” in Guantanamo Bay. The conclusion after an hour of role-playing: The prisoners’ lives “must be a living hell.” Among the sensitive journo’s claims: The face masks prevent religious teachings from being “passed on”; the boiler suits could cause prisoners to overheat, “causing exhaustion”; and their thong sandals “[c]an cause bruising if not fitted properly.” According to the Observer, “The undisclosed location at which this stunt was enacted bore a startling resemblance to the Mirror newsroom.”