Australia is to close a detention center at the heart of long-running controversy over its treatment of foreign asylum seekers, the government announced yesterday.
The Baxter detention center, north of Adelaide in South Australia state, will revert to the defense department, Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews said, although no date was specified.
Andrews said that it was possible to close Baxter because of Australia's system of processing asylum seekers offshore, particularly in its Pacific neighbor of Nauru.
"Stemming the flow of illegal arrivals has been a key part of the measures to make Australia's borders secure and assure the integrity of its immigration program," Andrews said.
Australia's use of offshore processing centers has been widely criticized at home and abroad as flouting international norms on treatment of refugees.
Some of the buildings at the Baxter center will be moved to the Northern Territory, as part of an ongoing program to reduce child abuse in indigenous communities, Andrews said.
"I am very pleased that the Baxter buildings can be put to good use in support of the government's commitment to the protection of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory," he said.
The move is likely to be seen as politically motivated. Australian Prime Minister John Howard won the 2001 election by taking a strong stance against illegal asylum seekers, prompting international condemnation.
He is running for a fifth term later this year and is lagging in the polls to opposition leader Kevin Rudd.
Refugee advocates welcomed the closure but said it was overshadowed by the building of a new detention center on Australia's remote Indian Ocean possession of Christmas Island.
"Closing Baxter doesn't come on its own because as Baxter closes, the Christmas Island gulag opens to the tune of A$400 million [US$314 million]," said Jack Smit of Project Safecom.
"It's the most grotesque Orwellian invention and millions of dollars of taxpayers' money is getting squandered by a government which has wedged itself into a corner of human rights abuses of innocent people," he said.
Some 12 inmates were still held at Baxter as of last week, he said.
GSL Australia, the company which has managed the Baxter facility for the government for the past three years, said the closure would affect the jobs of 100 staff.