Australia signals harder line on asylum seekers following Christmas Island tragedy
Refugee advocates fear Australia will get even tougher on asylum seekers following the Christmas Island shipwreck, which killed at least 30 refugees – many from Iran and Iraq.
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The "Pacific Solution" was introduced in 2001 by the former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, who set up offshore immigration detention camps. Supporters claim the policy was responsible for a dramatic fall in the number of boat people entering Australian waters. However, it was widely condemned by human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.Skip to next paragraph
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When Labor took federal power in 2007, the tough political rhetoric on boat people was toned down, visa restrictions on refugees were eased, and a number of off-shore detention facilities were closed with detainees transferred to the mainland. Government critics charge these moves are behind a recent surge in boat people to Australia – this year some 6,232 asylum seekers have arrived by boat compared with 148 in 2007. Refugee advocates maintain the increase has more to do with “push” factors in asylum seekers’ countries of origin.
Since Wednesday's shipwreck, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has committed herself to mandatory detention of asylum seekers, along with an election campaign proposal to set up a refugee processing hub in East Timor. This comes despite the fact that East Timor has previously rejected the idea. Critics have dubbed the proposal the “Timor Solution.”
“I can’t say that this incident will promote a more humane treatment of asylum seekers,” says Ian Rintoul, spokesman for Refugee Action Coalition. “I think it will only be a matter of time before both sides of government are associating themselves with the harsh policies which brought about this situation in the first place.”
Although asylum seekers arriving by boat make up less than 2 percent of Australia’s annual immigrant intake, the issue has emerged as one of the country’s most divisive over the past decade.
It has been particularly damaging for the ruling Labor Party, which is torn between left-wing factions that urge a more compassionate approach to asylum seekers and right-wing strategists who hold the Australian public demands a tough-on-boat people stance, including mandatory detention on offshore processing areas.
“Labor is really struggling on border security issues,” political analyst Nick Economou, from Melbourne’s Monash University, told Reuters this week. “The government raised expectations that they would stop the boat arrivals, but their policy is a complete mess.”