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Australia to deport illegal immigrants

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SYDNEY, Australia — Sixty-seven illegal immigrants detained at an outback facility have exhausted all options in applying for refugee status and will be deported, Australia's immigration minister said.

The 67 are among hundreds of detainees, mostly Afghan, being held at the Woomera detention center in the remote desert 1,120 miles west of Sydney.

"I can confirm that there are a group of people in the Woomera situation . . . who are not asylum-seekers but are now unlawful arrivals who we'd expect to go home," Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said Tuesday.

Also, nine young detainees at Woomera vowed to harm themselves Wednesday evening if they were not moved out, according to a broadcast report. Detainee Hassan Varasi told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio the group of 18-year-olds would harm themselves unless their demand was met.

On Tuesday, the government removed nine other children from Woomera after they threatened to commit suicide by throwing themselves on razor wire.

The five Afghan and four Iraqi youngsters, who are age 16 and 17 and without parents in the internment camp, have been placed in the care of the state department of human services, a spokesman said.

He would not say where the children had been sent, but they are believed to be on their way to Adelaide, 370 miles south of Woomera. They likely will be placed in foster homes.

Also, the government hinted Tuesday it might close Woomera and move illegal immigrants protesting their confinement to other sites.

As the crisis entered its 14th day Tuesday, the government's Immigration Detention Advisory Group recommended closing the former missile-testing base on a hot, dusty plain.

"Woomera is an extremely harsh environment in which to detain anybody," said Paris Aristotle, member of the Immigration Detention Advisory Group.

There are about 3,000 illegal immigrants — mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and southern Asia — currently in detention in five camps across Australia.

Hundreds of mostly Afghan asylum-seekers are on hunger strike at Woomera. The protesters are demanding that the government speed up their asylum claims — which can take three years — and move them out of the camp.

Detainees at other detention centers across Australia joined the hunger strike in a show of solidarity. Others sewed their lips together and threatened to commit suicide.

Ruddock said Tuesday the Woomera detention center could be scaled down as other holding facilities were built. Closing Woomera also might be possible in the future, he added.

"Whatever approach you take, Woomera will be required for certain contingencies and quite possibly for holding other groups of people who have exhausted their asylum claim opportunities," Ruddock said.

Ruddock's comments came after church leaders and the Red Cross joined a growing chorus criticizing the government's policy of locking up all illegal immigrants while their asylum applications are considered.

On Monday, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference asked the government to reassess how it deals with traumatized asylum seekers, saying its policy was being implemented at "too high a moral cost."

"I urge the government to respect the human dignity and rights of the asylum seekers, hear their cries for help, and to heed the disquiet of the community," said Archbishop Francis Carroll, president of conference.

The Red Cross said detainees were in crisis and their behavior stemmed from despair.

Prime Minister John Howard has refused to back down, despite the issue threatening to overshadow his weeklong visit to the United States, which starts Tuesday. He is scheduled to address the World Economic Forum and meet with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

"I wish this hunger strike were not taking place but the alternative is not to give in," Howard said before leaving Sydney on Monday.