Australia Eases Policy on Detaining Asylum Seekers
Publisher: the New York Times, USA
Author: By MATT SIEGEL
Story date: 28/11/2011
Language: English

SYDNEY, Australia — The government announced a significant shift on Friday in its policy toward asylum seekers who try to reach the country by sea, moving away from its use of open-ended detention in favor of a plan that allows applicants to live and work in the country while their claims are processed.

The immigration minister, Chris Bowen, said 27 asylum seekers who had arrived by boat would be released on so-called bridging visas, with more to follow in the coming months. The announcement was a reversal for Prime Minister Julia Gillard's government, which had maintained a policy of mandatory detention in hopes of deterring asylum seekers.

A plan to ship such asylum seekers to Malaysia for processing was rejected by the High Court this summer. The government abandoned an attempt to bypass that ruling through legislation after it became evident that it lacked the votes to succeed.

Mr. Bowen, referring to the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, said on Monday: "It became clear a month or so ago that legislation to allow for offshore processing of asylum seekers would not pass the Parliament due to the reckless approach of Mr. Abbott and the Liberal Party. As a result, the only lawful alternative is to process asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat onshore."

Australia has struggled for years to construct a framework for dealing with such applicants. Under Prime Minister John Howard of the Liberal Party, they were sent to nearby island nations for lengthy processing, but that so-called Pacific solution was abandoned when Kevin Rudd of Labor became prime minister in 2007. Ms. Gillard, also of Labor, succeeded Mr. Rudd.

The number of boat arrivals jumped significantly after that shift, however, as did public outrage over the issue in reaction to a series of fatal accidents at sea.

Under the new system, those who seek asylum in Australia will be eligible to live and work in the community — if they pass health, identity and initial security checks — while they await judgment on their applications. Mr. Bowen said they would have access to some government services, but not to the welfare system.

Mr. Bowen said he expected at least 100 bridging visas to be issued each month as the government moved to clear out the backlog of about 3,800 detainees. Priority would be given to those who had spent the longest time in detention, Mr. Bowen said.

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Australia praised the move. "U.N.H.C.R. has been very concerned, for many years, about the human impact of mandatory detention on asylum seekers and refugees arriving by boat to Australia," the agency's regional representative, Richard Towle, said in a statement on Friday. "Today's announcements, that people who pose no security and health threats can be released more swiftly into the community through the use of bridging visas, is very welcome."

Amnesty International, which lobbied hard against the Malaysia proposal and has been consistently critical of Ms. Gillard's policy, also welcomed the shift.

"It's good to see that it's finally been announced and, in terms of our initial impressions, it's a very welcome announcement," Graham Thom, the group's spokesman on refugee issues, said in an interview. Mr. Thom referred to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory, saying, "This brings us closer into line with our convention obligations, which is really significant."

But Scott Morrison, the opposition coalition's shadow minister on immigration matters, accused the government of being soft on immigration and said the policy could lead to more deaths at sea.

"Julia Gillard has removed every brick in John Howard's wall on border protection and has flung the door open to illegal boat arrivals on the eve of the monsoon season, the most dangerous time of year to travel," he said in a statement.
 

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