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Australia Decides to Free Some Immigration Detainees

  • Phil Mercer

Australia has decided to conditionally release a small number of asylum seekers from special immigration detention centers. The illegal migrants have been held under the country's controversial mandatory detention policy.

The new policy, announced by Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone, will apply to detainees who are effectively stateless. Their claims for asylum have been rejected but they cannot be sent back home for various reasons. Some have been barred from returning to their home countries and can find no other country willing to offer them residency.

Under the plan, some of these refugees can be released if they promise to end all legal appeals of their failed asylum applications.

Ms. Vanstone says the illegal migrants, all of whom have been held in detention camps for at least two years, also must accept that they cannot stay in Australia indefinitely and agree to deportation when it is safe enough for them to go home.

"They've had all of their hearings in various tribunals and courts. The answer is no [they cannot receive asylum]. One of the conditions will be that they accept that and agree to return to their country of origin," she said.

Under the terms of their release, the detainees will have to report every month to immigration officials.

They will be allowed to work and will have access to public health care and specialist services, such as trauma counseling.

Critics of the new arrangement say only a handful of detainees will benefit. Senator Bob Brown of the opposition Green Party says the plan is a waste of time.

"This is a no-hope visa. This means that you have no hope of staying in Australia. You're going to be allowed out, but you renounce all legal right to fight to stay here," he summarized.

But some local newspapers see the policy as a softening of Prime Minister John Howard's tough immigration policy, which has won popular support for his conservative coalition government. Under the policy, illegal migrants who claim asylum are detained until their applications are processed. The changes follow months of lobbying by refugee groups and politicians from all parties.

Mr. Howard has said, however, that he has no plans to dismantle the detention policy.

The policy has been criticized as inhumane by human rights organizations, but defended by the government on health and national security grounds. The government says it was key in halting an influx of illegal migrants arriving by boat.

Australia annually takes in about 10,000 refugees who have applied for and received asylum in other countries.

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