Somali refugees end hunger strike


By Ron Skinner

SYDNEY — Six exiles from Somalia ended a 13-day hunger strike on June 21, after two of the men were granted temporary refugee status.

About 34 other asylum-seekers from the strife-torn northern African nation are being held at Westbridge Migrant Centre at Villawood in Sydney's western suburbs.

The six began starving themselves at the high-security Villawood Detention Centre in early June in protest against Immigration Department delays in processing their applications for refugee status. They returned to the Westbridge Migrant Centre when their strike ended.

The 36 men, women and children arrived in Australia between early 1990 and March this year. All made refugee status applications as soon as they arrived. The exiles are being held at the Migrant Centre because the Immigration Department considers them illegal immigrants.

Refugee Advice and Care Service worker Juliet Morris says the Somalis' experience is disturbingly common for refugees who choose Australia as sanctuary.

"This case indicates an overriding problem of the time it takes to process applications", she said. "There are such long delays — the longest I know of was two years.

"It's unfair to force people to live in prison-like conditions for such long periods."

Many refugees await the outcome of their applications at migrant centres like Westbridge. They face a life behind bars, with guards, barbed wire and a regimented daily routine.

Morris said one of her clients, a Sri Lankan man, was detained for two years in those conditions. At one stage, he became so desperate he attempted suicide. After two years' incarceration, his refugee status application was approved.