Australia Defends New Refugee Laws

Australia defends new refugee laws

The Associated Press
Published: December 9, 2008

CANBERRA, Australia: Australia's government defended itself Tuesday against criticism that relaxing refugee laws earlier this year has made the country a softer target for people smugglers.

The opposition Liberal Party, which while in power introduced a tough standard for dealing with refugees that was widely criticized by human rights advocates, is blaming the softer approach of the year-old Labor Party government for recent increased arrivals.

Six boats have arrived in two months carrying asylum seekers.

The arrival Sunday of 44 Afghans the largest group of asylum seekers to reach Australian waters this year has reignited a divisive political debate about how Australia should deal with refugees.

Liberal Leader Malcolm Turnbull told reporters Monday that the government's decision in August to give refugees permanent visas instead of three-year visas had made Australia more attractive to people smugglers.

“This has … sent a signal to people smugglers that Australia is a softer target, and we now have six boats found in Australian waters,” Turnbull said.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans said Tuesday that conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka were feeding the people smuggling industry, not Australian policy.

He said there was no evidence that the three-year refugee visas introduced by former Prime Minister John Howard's Liberal government in 1999 had achieved its aim of deterring asylum seekers from sailing to Australia.

Under the so-called temporary protection visas, refugees had to prove after three years that they still could not safely return to their homelands if they wanted to remain in Australia.

“The temporary protection visa regime for asylum seekers was one of the worst aspects of the Howard government's punitive treatment of refugees,” Evans said in a statement.

The new government has also softened Australia's approach to asylum seekers by allowing them all access to lawyers and by limiting what was indefinite detention to 12 months.

The U.N. refugee agency has backed the government's more moderate approach.

“These numbers are manageable and there is a fair and robust process in place to deal with them,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees regional head Rick Towle told The Australian newspaper.

Human Rights Commissioner Graeme Innes, Australia's rights watchdog, said that the government's border protection policy has not softened.”

“It has become a lot more compassionate, but there's still firm border security and I think its unlikely to be the reason” for the spate of boat arrivals, he said.

The government said this week it will increase sea and air surveillance of Australia's northern waters because people smugglers were taking advantage of good weather to step up their shipments of human cargoes from Indonesia.

The 127 suspected asylum seekers who have arrived in Australian waters aboard the latest six boats have been taken to an immigration detention camp on Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean where their refugee applications will be decided.

They are the only asylum seekers to arrive by boat so far this calendar year. Last year, 148 asylum seekers arrived aboard five boats.