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Australia agonizes over refugee dilemma

Illegal immigrants take the chance to do some washing after arriving at Australia's remote Christmas island  

By CNN's Grant Holloway

CANBERRA, Australia (CNN) -- As the numbers of refugees arriving on Australia's north-western doorstep increases daily, an unseemly row has broken out over where, and how, to keep them while their eligibility to stay in the country is assessed.

Temperatures are rising over the situation which is now shaping up as a serious policy issue ahead of likely elections in November or December this year.

Australia maintains a strict policy of mandatory detention for all illegal immigrants, a stance which is putting pressure on the country's already maligned detention camps -- many of which are sited in remote desert locations.

But the recent influx in arrivals by boat of refugees from the Middle East, via Indonesia, is putting pressure on the existing nine detention camps.

At a glance: Australia

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Australia currently holds about 2,500 illegal immigrants, including up to 500 children, in nine camps.

However, in the past week as many as 1,000 people have made it to Australian shores and customs officials warn there are many more boatloads on the way from Indonesia.

Conditions in the camps are already far from ideal, with many detainees protesting their detention by rioting, going on hunger strikes, mutilating themselves and attempting suicide.

While most Australians accept that the government must do its best to control the growing influx of illegal immigrant, there is growing disquiet about the conditions in the detention camps.

Australia's Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock is adamant that no matter how many boatloads of would-be refugees arrive, the policy of mandatory detention will be maintained.

His solution is to build more facilities to cope with the extra numbers.

The Federal Opposition leader, Kim Beazley, Friday indicated Labor might put an end to privately-run immigrant detention centers if it wins government.

Judicial inquiry

And he says Labor will call a judicial inquiry to investigate the problems faced by the immigration system in Australia.

Beazley says the privatisation of detention centers may have added to the problems faced by the immigration system.

The latest arrivals bring the number of migrants who have entered Australia illegally by boat so far this year to about 3,700 compared with 2,939 for all of 2000 -- a trickle by international standards but enough to fuel raging debate in Australia.

While many claims for asylum are decided within three or four months, other claims can take more than a year, especially if the claimant chooses to challenge the decision through the Australian legal system.

Extra capacity

This situation has prompted Ruddock to announce plans for three new detention facilities to be prepared in regional Australia, adding the capacity to detain up to a further 3,000 illegal immigrants.

"Current detention capacity is increasingly being taken up by people who have exhausted their claims or who, having had their claims for asylum rejected, are pursuing appeals through tribunals and the Courts, prolonging the time they spend in detention," Ruddock said.

Ruddock said work would start immediately at a Department of Defense facility at Singleton in the state of New South Wales and at El Alamein near Port Augusta in South Australia to prepare contingency immigration detention capacity.

While the Mayor of Singleton -- which recently hosted Kosovar refugees from the Balkan crisis -- has welcomed the facility, the Mayor of Port Augusta, Joy Baluch, is less than impressed.

"I am stunned, shocked and p****d off that I was not consulted, my community wasn't consulted," she said.

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