Australia hopes to reopen refugee detention centers in the Pacific islands nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea under a new plan to deter refugee boats from reaching Australia and prevent sinkings of overcrowded boats en route.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she would also hold more talks with Malaysia about a stalled people-swap deal and will consider boosting Australia's annual refugee intake as a compromise to break a deadlock over asylum policy.
11,800 asylum claims
Refugee policy is an emotive subject in Australia, even though the country receives only a small number of the world's asylum seekers each year. The U.N refugee agency said Australia received 11,800 asylum claims in 2011, compared with 441,000 globally.
The new plan was announced on Monday after a report said 964 asylum seekers had died since 2001 while making the dangerous sea journey to Australia.
"When our nation looks at what is happening at sea, too many lives have been lost," Gillard told reporters.
The policy is a major shift for Gillard and a win for the conservative opposition, which has long pushed for the government to reopen a detention centre on Nauru and abandon its planned refugee-swap agreement with Malaysia.
Former conservative prime minister John Howard set up detention centres on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island and in Nauru under his Pacific solution, which aimed to deter people smugglers and remove automatic access to Australia for those who are granted refugee status.
Manus Island was closed in 2004, while former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd shut down the Nauru detention centre shortly after he won power in late 2007.
Support from the opposition
Gillard's plan will need to be endorsed by parliament, where it should receive support from the opposition, although the minority government's Greens supporters have condemned it.
"The Greens won't be party to something which is cruel to people," said Greens leader Christian Milne.
In July 2011, Gillard announced details of an agreement with Malaysia which would allow Australia to send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia and in return accept 4,000 who have been found to be genuine refugees, but that plan was scuttled by the High Court.
Human rights group Amnesty International on Monday said Australia had bowed to short-term political pressure at the expense of protecting the rights of asylum seekers.
"The tragedy of asylum seeker deaths at sea must be addressed, but not by punishing people who have already fled torture and persecution," spokesman Graham Thom said.
The U.N. refugee agency said it supported a regional approach to refugees, but it would need to see more detail about plans to re-open the Papua New Guinea and Nauru centres.