Australia takes tough stance against asylum-seekers

The government of prime minister Julia Gillard's centre-left Labour Party claims the latest crackdown is aimed at discouraging people from risking their lives in leaky boats.

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SYDNEY // When the Australian government resurrected a get-tough deportation policy in August, the number of asylum-seekers reaching the country's shores was expected to dwindle.

Instead, more boats than ever before have arrived - and now the government has announced even stronger measures.

Not only will "boat people" be sent to the remote Pacific island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG) to face lengthy stays in detention camps, as happened under the conservative former prime minister. They will also have to wait five years to be resettled, even if deemed genuine refugees.

And once those two facilities are full, asylum-seekers will be housed on the Australian mainland but prohibited from working, receiving an allowance that will see them live below the poverty line.

The announcement of the new measures, which have been criticised by refugee and human-rights groups, coincided with a visit to Nauru by an Australian Amnesty International team. The team, which inspected the detention centre, described conditions as "cruel, inhuman and degrading".

They also came as the first batch of 19 asylum-seekers, including four children, were sent to PNG's Manus Island - a place even the local MP, Ronnie Knight, warned would send people "stir crazy" if confined there for five years.

The government of prime minister Julia Gillard's centre-left Labor Party claims the latest crackdown is aimed at discouraging people from risking their lives in leaky boats. More than 300 have lost their lives making the perilous journey across the Sunda Strait between Indonesia and the Australian territory of Christmas Island since December, including 90 who died in two boat accidents that occurred within a week of each other in June.

Critics believe that, with an election due in the next 12 months, it has more to do with winning votes in working-class marginal electorates. The conservative opposition responded to it by promising to force asylum-seekers to work for their allowance, and to slash the annual refugee intake.

"The politicians are now competing with each other to be the toughest, meanest and harshest," said Pamela Curr, campaign coordinator of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. "The government introduces a policy; the opposition tries to trump it; then the government goes one better. There's a real race to the bottom at the moment in Australia."

The Amnesty team returned with grim tidings from Nauru, where nearly 400 men - many from Sri Lanka, Iraq and Afghanistan - are crammed into tents, which flooded last week during monsoonal rains. Nine are on hunger strike, including a Kurdish man who has been refusing food for more than 40 days. Another man tried to hang himself from a tent pole while Amnesty was on the island. Others have attempted suicide, or cut themselves with knives.

Work has yet to begin on more permanent accommodation, and processing has not yet started. The men are beset by uncertainty, distressed at being separated from their families for five years, and at a loss to understand why they are on Nauru, said Graham Thom, Amnesty's Australian refugee coordinator. "That is combined with the oppressive conditions, with 14 men to a tent, no room to move inside and no privacy."

Mr Thom said that with tropical conditions and temperatures of up to 40C, the tents were too hot to enter during the day - but there was no shade outside. "Not a single blade of grass, or a tree. It's all gravel and rock. No one can sleep at night because some of the men are crying with worry about what's going on in their home countries with their families. The sense of desperation is palpable.

"They kept asking us: 'Why are we being treated like criminals?' They said: 'Animals in Australia get treated better than us here.'"

A spokesman for the immigration minister, Chris Bowen, said detainees on Nauru had food and water, as well as access to medical and mental health services and recreational activities. "Conditions in Nauru at times may not be pleasant, but they are the same conditions immigration staff and service providers are working under," he said.

Mr Bowen defended the plan to house people on the mainland and prevent them from working. "They are difficult decisions. I don't enjoy making them," he told ABC radio, adding that the proposed welfare payment of A$218 (Dh833.50) a week was "not generous, but it's appropriate". More than 7,000 asylum-seekers have arrived in Australia by boat since August - the most in any three-month period.

The guiding principle behind the new policies is that those who come by boat should not receive any advantage over those waiting in camps in transit countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Hence the plan to make them wait five years to be resettled, which is the average waiting time for people in the camps.

The opposition leader, Tony Abbott, said that if the conservative Coalition was elected, it would slash the refugee intake by more than 6,000 people a year. "We need to send the strongest possible message to the people-smugglers and their clients that the game is up," he told ABC radio.