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Sagging in polls, Australia's government toughens stance on asylum seekers

Australia's Labor government, which recently fell behind in the polls for the first time since taking power, has imposed a freeze on asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

By Kathy MarksCorrespondent / May 17, 2010

Protesters organized by Amnesty International form the shape of a life ring buoy on Sydney's Bondi Beach in this May 8 photo. The rally was organized in reaction to the government's recent changes to processing asylum applications of people from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

James Morgan/Amnesty International/Reuters/File

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Christmas Island, Australia

In 2001 Christmas Island became synonymous with Australia’s hard-line refugee policy after former conservative Prime Minister John Howard turned away a Norwegian tanker, the Tampa, carrying shipwrecked asylum seekers.

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Nine years later, the island – an Australian external territory 1,600 miles northwest of Perth – is again in the spotlight, as asylum policy once again becomes a political football.

In Australia, which intermittently receives boatloads of refugees fleeing war and poverty in neighboring countries, the issue is always a sensitive one, but never more so than in an election year.

The Labor government, accused of being “soft” on border protection following a flurry of asylum-seeker boat arrivals on the island, has announced a freeze of up to six months on the processing of new refugee claims by Afghans and Sri Lankans.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans cited improved security conditions in the two countries when announcing the move last month. However, critics noted that the move followed the interception of dozens of boats in Australian waters this year, and revelations that an immigration detention center on Christmas Island is overflowing.

'Tough but compassionate'

After Kevin Rudd became prime minister in 2007, he abolished some of Mr. Howard’s more controversial measures, such as sending asylum seekers to the Pacific nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea for processing, and granting refugees five-year rather than permanent visas.

However, as part of an immigration policy that Mr. Rudd has called “tough but compassionate,” his government continued the practice of preventing “boat people” from setting foot on the mainland. Christmas Island, where a detention center was built after the Tampa incident, became the centerpiece of that policy, with all “illegal” arrivals taken to the remote, tropical territory for processing.

Designed to accommodate at most 800 people, the center currently holds about 2,000, with the excess housed in prefabricated huts and air-conditioned tents. The government has been forced to fly some detainees to the mainland, where it recently reopened a Howard-era facility in Western Australia.

That action has provoked more criticism from human rights groups and refugee advocates, who claim that the isolated Curtin center – the site of riots and suicide attempts in the past – is unsuitable for its purpose. Zachary Steel, a clinical psychologist and senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales, described it recently as “a psychiatric catastrophe.”

Dr. Steel, who carried out a mental health study at the center, uncovered a tenfold increase in psychiatric disorders among children.

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