Asylum seekers protest in Australia
Afghan refugee claimants escape from detention centre, hold protest and then surrender to police.
Last Modified: 01 Sep 2010 09:51 GMT

 Some asylum seekers have been held for more than eight months for their refugee claims to be processed [REUTERS]

Dozens of Afghan asylum seekers have broken out of a detention centre in northern Australia and held a sit-in near a major highway to protest against the long delays in processing their refugee applications, police say.

More than 70 men were peacefully taken back into police custody after their protest, while five others were taken to a hospital to be treated for dehydration and heat exhaustion, police said on Wednesday.

Some of the men have been in detention for up to 10 months, and they escaped and protested to beg authorities to re-examine their bids for refugee status.

"If I go back, they will cut my head off," Karemi Syed, one of the protesting asylum seekers, said.

Men who had their applications refused are awaiting deportation.

Others are in limbo after Australia instituted a temporary ban on processing applications from Afghans because of an improved situation at home.

That ban expires in October.

'Protection not detention'

Men carried banners reading: "We need protection, not detention" and "Australia is known by its humanity, don't discriminate refugees".

Chris Evans, the immigration minister, said the government could law charges against the protesters for damaging government property during their escape.

"I stress these are asylum seekers, they are not criminals, and they are seeking support ... for their claims of asylum," he said.

The breakout on Wednesday was the latest of a series of problems at the detention centre.

Over the weekend, accused Indonesian people smugglers held there set mattresses on fire and demonstrated on a rooftop.

And fighting broke out last month between two groups of asylum seekers.

Asylum seekers are a political hot topic in Australia, where the opposition party blames a relaxation of immigration policies by the ruling Australian Labor Party for an increased influx of boat people in the last two years.

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