Why Australia just toughened its tough immigration stance
Riots at Australia’s immigration detention centers have pushed Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s government to take new measures on asylum-seekers. But critics say they don't target the fundamental reasons for the unrest.
Riots and unrest at Australia's immigration detention centers have piled pressure on Julia Gillard's minority government, forcing her to adopt a raft of new measures including a "refugee swap" with Malaysia and negotiations to reopen a mothballed facility in Papua New Guinea.Skip to next paragraph
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The steps have prompted accusations from critics that the Labor government is copying the policies of the former conservative prime minister, John Howard, who gave Australia an international reputation for taking one of the hardest lines on asylum-seekers – although the numbers coming here are minuscule compared with those arriving in the US and Europe.
Under a deal struck with Kuala Lumpur, Australia will send 800 "boat people" to Malaysia for processing by the United Nations. In return, it will accept 4,000 mainly Burmese refugees currently in Malaysia awaiting resettlement. The aim is to deter asylum-seekers from making the journey to Australia via Indonesia, but the plan has been attacked by refugee and human rights groups, including Amnesty International.
An Amnesty report last year described Malaysia’s immigration detention centers as filthy, overcrowded, lacking in proper healthcare, sufficient food, and clean drinking water – and rife with abuse by staff.
The Australian government is also talking to Papua New Guinea about reopening a detention center on remote Manus Island, which was used to process asylum-seekers under former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, or building a new one there.
The refugee issue was thrust back into the political spotlight by the disturbances at centers around Australia, where asylum-seekers – mainly from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Iraq – are housed while their claims are considered. At the Villawood facility in Sydney, disgruntled detainees set fire to four buildings recently, then staged an 11-day rooftop protest. Other facilities, including the main refugee processing center on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, have also experienced trouble.