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Europe

Refugee Conditions Overshadow Australian Prime Minister's Visit

John Howard arrives in Germany on Monday for a three-day official state visit. He is expected to discuss the international war on terrorism and plead for the elimination of agricultural subsidies to European farmers.

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Australia's war against illegal immigration threatens to create barriers for its prime minister in Europe

With renewed international criticism of conditions in camps for illegal immigrants in Australia, Prime Minister John Howard will likely be taken to task in his meetings with German and European leaders.

Howard is to meet with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer before traveling on to Greece, Italy and Brussels later in the week, where he will meet with European Commission leaders.

Sticking the pitchfork in subsidies

High on Howard's agenda will be an effort to persuade his European colleagues - both in Berlin and Brussels - to eliminate agricultural subsidies and other trade barriers that hinder Australian farmers' access to the European market. However, Howard told the business newspaper Handelsblatt he did not expect to achieve immediate success.

"I know how deeply rooted agricultural protectionism is in Europe, and I have realistic expectations," he told the paper. "I'm not even predicting a small victory."

Differing views on treatment of refugees

In the interview, Howard also defended Australia's strict immigration policies and harsh treatment of illegal immigrants, which have been the subject of criticism from international organizations and in the global media.

In its latest report on asylum seekers, the United Nations criticized Australia for appalling conditions in refugee camps where asylum seekers were treated "worse than criminals." Conditions were so poor in one detention camp in the Australian Outback that 35 refugees fled last week. The camps have been the sites of violence, suicides, self-mutilation and hunger strikes. Nevertheless, Howard has said he has no problem with the policies.

Last August, the Australian government came under considerable criticism in the international community after it soldiers stormed the Tampa - a Norwegian freighter that had rescued 438 refugees from a sinking ship in the Indian Ocean and refused to allow them entry into Australia.

There's No "Fortress Australia"

In an interview with the Welt am Sonntag newspaper, Howard said he had no plans to change his country's policies on illegal immigrants and blamed the media for "lots of erroneous stories" that have created a distorted image of a "Fortress Australia." He said Australia planned to take in 100,000 to 110,000 immigrants this year, 12,000 more than the previous year.

But he warned that illegal immigration threatened to "undermine" Australia's legal immigration program and that its borders needed to be better protected.

Immigration isn't the only area of contention between Australia and Europe. Australia joined the U.S. recently in its boycott of the Kyoto Protocol to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.