Religious Pilgrims Seek Asylum in Australia

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12 August 2008

Refugee activists say that 20 Catholic pilgrims have applied for asylum in Australia after attending last month's World Youth Day event.  The Asylum Seekers Center of New South Wales reports the pilgrims are mostly from African countries.  From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

Tens of thousands of young foreigners attended the Roman Catholic Church's World Youth Day in Sydney last month.  Most came on short-term tourist visas to participate in events that included masses said by Pope Benedict.

So far 20 of those visitors have applied for political asylum.  Refugee advocates think the number will increase when other pilgrims' visas expire.

Those seeking sanctuary sought help at The Asylum Seekers Center of New South Wales.

The center's director, Tamara Domicelj, told Australian radio that those seeking help came from a number of countries.

"A range of countries," she said.  "We're seeing many African countries in amongst them, and you know we're seeing people from Cameroon, we're seeing people from Burundi, we're seeing people from Kenya, we're seeing people from Pakistan. But it's a diverse group."

Refugee activists say they had expected some World Youth Day pilgrims to apply for asylum, as they took advantage of the opportunity to reach a place of safety.

Australia resettles about 13,000 refugees every year under official humanitarian programs.  Last month the Labor government said illegal migrants will no longer automatically be detained while their applications for refugee status are processed.

Starting next year, only asylum seekers who are considered to be health or security risks will be held in jail.

The changes mean that World Youth Day pilgrims who want to stay in Australia will live in the community while officials review their claims.

A spokesman for the Department of Immigration refused to comment on specific cases but has said that it has contingency plans to handle asylum seekers attending major events such as World Youth Day.