London Notes

Jan. 28 2002 3:26 PM

London Notes

Jail birds.

Australia, which was founded as a British penal colony in the 18th century, owes much to its prison camp and immigrant past. Robert Hughes, the Australian art critic, says that his nation's character is partly explained by a history of incarceration, while in novelist Peter Carey's view, "a real Australian … is, by my definition anyway, an immigrant". The current Australian administration, led by Prime Minister John Howard, has lately drawn heavy criticism for the harshness of its attitude towards would-be immigrants. Last year, hundreds of Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers trying to enter Australia on board tramp freighters were forcibly turned away. They spent weeks marooned on board their rusting ships or on remote islands. Those lucky enough to be taken care of by Australian officials are now being detained at six camps—including Woomera, Maribynong, and Curtin. Prisoners at the camps are staging hunger strikes and in some cases grim symbolic protests, such as sewing their lips together to illustrate how they've been gagged by Australian immigration officials.

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Prompted by these desperate protests, an outraged Peter Carey told the BBC in London on Saturday: "[The Australian government has] developed a very punitive policy, presumably because they want the whole damn world to know that if anyone comes to Australia they are going to be punished and tortured." Carey's words, along with those of Australian human rights lawyers, have had an impact. Howard's government is considering softer treatment for those asylum seekers already in Australian custody. Perhaps some of these Afghans and Iraqis will eventually be allowed to apply for Australian nationality—in which case, like the first Europeans to settle in Australia, their first experience of this new found land will have been the traditional prison camp.