SYDNEY — Burn, baby, burn. That’s how arsonists among illegal arrivals held in detention centers across Australia greeted the new year. What an inglorious way to start 2003!

Australian taxpayers who will have to pay for the $10 million fire-damage bill are fuming. Though all are grateful that a worse tragedy, an expected outburst of Islamic extremist terrorism, did not happen here. It’s amazing how quickly we are adjusting to a new lifestyle in the wake of 9/11 and the Bali bombing.

As families across the country were settling down to eat and drink to traditional Christmas excess, Middle Eastern illegal aliens imprisoned in isolated detention centers began savagely torching their living quarters. One after another — Woomera and Baxter in South Australia, Port Hedland in Western Australia, Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, Villawood in Sydney — the newly refurbished facilities went up in smoke.

Even on New Year’s Eve, when the rest of Sydney was swinging, the firebugs were attacking guards who were trying to contain fires at Villawood. Two inmates rammed gates in cars stolen from guards in a vain bid to escape to suburbs where legal immigrants have set up Muslim communities.

The illegals are clearly resentful and frustrated at not getting Canberra to change its mind and admit them, but they were not half as frustrated as the general population, which wants these boat people, smuggled into the country by Indonesian fishermen, to be deported as fast as they can be flown out.

But that’s half the problem. Their countries of origin, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon are not clamoring for their return despite Canberra’s diplomatic efforts. Even when Canberra offers to pays $2,000 to each illegal who will accept a free plane ticket home, most reject it. They prefer to fight through Australian courts to stay, financed by sympathetic Australians.

The charred detention centers with their barred windows and barbed wire have been a political liability to the Howard government for years. Mostly stuck out in the desert, they have divided the Australian community on compassionate grounds. But when thousands of boat people flooded into the country a few years back, the government got tough. The new policy worked. News of the government’s tough new detention policy reached Pakistan, a regular point of embarkation, and last year the flood abated.

Public support for a let-them-stay brigade has waned since the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The last straw for the bleeding-heart sympathizers was the Bali bombing in October. Almost half the 180 victims killed were young Australian holidaymakers. Little wonder Qantas and Garuda are flying empty planes to Bali these days.

If the firebugs think they can regain public sympathy for their cause, they are deluded. Attorney General Daryl Williams says he is taking “active measures to expedite deportations” of detained asylum seekers, three-quarters of whom have exhausted legal appeals for refugee status.

But Greg Barns, a former government member who now speaks for the Coalition for Reform of Refugee Policy, claims the mayhem proves policy failure: “Until the government addresses its fundamental flaw, which is mandatory detention in inhospitable parts of Australia, you can expect a repetition of this behavior.”

What gripes taxpayers, particularly those who migrated here through the slow, legal process, is that 14,000 illegals are on the run in Australia. Having escaped into the community, they merge into their ethnic cliques, sometimes work in low-paid jobs and generally avoid identifying with Australians.

The Immigration Department estimates just over one-third of 6,255 applicants denied refugee protection visas in 2001-2002 have gone underground. Only 263 of the 14,000 who absconded in the past five years escaped from detention centers.

Public reaction is set to explode in a few weeks when the Refugee Review Tribunal will rule on the return of 1,700 Timorese asylum seekers, many of whom have lived here since the brutal days of Indonesian occupation of East Timor. Also up for review are the temporary protection visas issued to thousands of Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers.

Will Howard weaken his tough stand against the detained asylum seekers, now down to about 1,000? “If anybody thinks they can alter our policy by setting fire to detention centers, then they’re wrong,” he says. “That won’t alter our policy one iota.”

Voters are with him, public opinions show. And the latest government publicity campaign alerting the community against terrorist attack will further enhance his strong leadership image. The “be alert but not alarmed” ads fit in with the new public mood, itself a break from traditional attitudes.

One poll shows that 60 percent of Australians believe their relaxed way of life has been changed forever by terrorist attacks overseas. More than a quarter say they now suffer from a “general paranoia.” Four in five think Australia is a likely terrorist target.

Jitters were not calmed a few weeks back when the first load of 50,000 doses of smallpox vaccine arrived. No vaccine has been stored here in the past 20 years. Preparing against any terrorist attack, Canberra has ordered another 100,000 doses, which will arrive within months.

Cold comfort, too, from reports by investigative journalists. One newspaper claims terrorists linked to the Indonesian Muslim group, Jemaah Islamiah, had trained in remote farms outside Sydney and Perth. A Perth group, disciples of the radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, was said to be preparing for an Islamic superstate planned for Southeast Asia and northern Australia.

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