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Asylum Seekers: Hunger strike ends - Bishop Hurley visits Woomera

The Asylum seeker hunger strike at Woomera is winding down following the visit of government advisers and commitments that have been given to the detainees according to widespread media reports this morning. While the media has been exluded from the detention centre, Bishop Eugene Hurley -- whose diocese of Port Pirie includes the remote Woomera facility -- has visited the facility a number of times. In Sydney yesterday he spoke to the media. Helen Ransom of Catholic Communications, Sydney reports on what Bishop Hurley said. (See report below.) Elsewhere the Sydney Morning Herald carries a background article using the story of Moses in the bullrushes as a parallel to the sacrifices desperate parents make for their children. (See link below.)

Bishop Hurley's visit to asylum seekers

By Helen Ransom

The Federal Government must heed the Woomera asylum seekers' cries for help before their acts of desperation intensify, according to the Bishop of Port Pirie, Eugene Hurley.

Speaking to media in Sydney today, Bishop Hurley -- whose diocese includes the Woomera region in South Australia -- told of his recent visit to the detention centre where he witnessed first hand the "anguish, despair and sense of hopelessness" of the Afghan asylum seekers.

"In my judgement as a counsellor, many of these people have reached a point of desperation where tragedy is an imminent possibility: already these people are deeply traumatised and dislocated," Bishop Hurley said.

"If some meaningful change does not take place quickly then I am fearful of some serious calamity," he said.

The Bishop said that detainees had reached a point where their threats were no longer trivial and that in their desperation there was a real possibility that drastic measures, such as suicide, would be taken.

"They shared with me (through interpreters) the fact that this was a do or die effort. They were convinced that they would lose media attention for their plight if they stopped the hunger strike -- they couldn't bear the thought of going through all this suffering without some change taking place," he said.

Bishop Hurley said the human dignity and rights of the asylum seekers needed to be addressed, and urged the Government to reconsider its current policy of detainment.

"It is my conviction and my experience that the policy that has led to this situation, however well intentioned, is simply wrong," he said, adding that while Australians support the control of immigration, he was convinced we do not accept "deterrence at any cost".

Bishop Hurley said that the Afghan asylum seekers had genuine reasons for not wanting to return to their homeland at this stage; including fear of remnants of the Taliban, the fatwa against the ethnic Hazara people, landmines and the lack of infrastructure.

He added that the refugees were eager to return to their homeland when it was safe to do so, and he would like to see a 'Safe Haven' arrangement, similar to that for the Kosovars and Timorese, developed.

"I strongly support the proposal by Minister Ruddock to extend the Home Trial -- of having some residents live in the community," he said.

Bishop Hurley's visit was part of the Diocese of Port Pirie's ongoing pastoral care program for the detention centre community.

The Bishop also expressed his great admiration for the managers and staff Woomera, but raised his increasing fear about the potential stress of those providing care and supervision in an environment of tension.

Today's address follows recent concerns from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference over the conditions of asylum seekers in detention.

AAP coverage of Bishop Hurley's media conference
SMH background report (incl. Moses and the bullrushes analogy)