Australia's government has overhauled its immigration policy for asylum seekers, a move that drew praise from human rights groups, but was criticized by the main opposition party as a potential security risk. The new policy was announced Tuesday and follows the election last year of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who had opposed the tough anti-immigration stance of his predecessor, John Howard. Among the largest group of claimants in recent years have been refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The new rules apply to illegal immigrants who want to claim political asylum in Australia. Under a 1992 law, Australia can automatically detain anyone seeking asylum, which can take years to decide. Most controversial was the so-called 2001 "Pacific Solution," which involved warehousing claimants in detention camps on Pacific islands while their cases were considered. Mr. Rudd moved to close these camps after he took office.
Immigration Minister Chris Evans said in a speech on Tuesday that asylum seekers who "pose no danger to the community" won't be detained while their visa status is determined, Bloomberg reports. Those who are detained because they "present unacceptable risks to the community" will be subject to quarterly reviews by the immigration department, he added. Children are exempt from mandatory detention. Refugees who arrive by boat on Australia's outer islands will be processed on Christmas Island, an Australian territory.
In a copy of his speech on the Australian Labor Party website, Mr. Evans pledged to improve independent oversight of immigration rulings and said that all asylum seekers would have access to free legal advice. He said Australia would continue to honor its international commitment to providing a safe haven for political refugees and criticized his predecessor's "shameful" policies.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports that the opposition in Parliament has attacked the revised policy as poorly conceived and against the national interest. Chris Ellison, immigration spokesman for Mr. Howard's party, which held power for 11 years until last year's election defeat, said softening the detention policy would "send a clear message to the region that we are relaxing border control."
The Associated Press reports that Howard's tough stance was initially popular with voters after a surge in illegal sea crossings from neighboring Indonesia by refugees packed into rickety boats. As a wealthy nation of immigrants, Australia was seen as an attractive destination to people fleeing from war-torn countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
Human rights groups have broadly welcomed the new policy, reports the BBC. Amnesty International said the measure would bring Australia in line with other Western democracies and repair the harm done to the country's international image. But Amnesty called for the closure of the detention camp on Christmas Island, which Evans said would continue to be used to house detainees who land outside Australia's so-called migration zone.
The daily The Australian reports that the detention facility on Christmas Island, which lies between Indonesia and Australia's northwest coast, was built to house 800 people at a cost of A$300 million to taxpayers, but is largely empty today. Other offshore detention camps on Pacific islands like Nauru were closed after Rudd took office.
Former Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, a close ally of Howard, said the sharp reduction in illegal entrants into the country had lightened the burden for the new government, reports Sky News. Mr. Ruddock said that several thousand illegal migrants had tried to reach Australia during some years, but unauthorized arrivals had since fallen, a trend he attributed to the Howard government's tough stance. He warned that human traffickers might seek to capitalize on the new, watered-down policy.
Agence-France Presse reports that around 380 asylum seekers are currently in detention and will now be processed under the new policy. A previous review by Evans of 72 detainees among those who had been held for over two years found that 31 should be released and given visas, 24 faced deportation, and 17 were still subject to legal investigations.