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Controversial Asylum Law Passes First Hurdle in Australia

  • Phil Mercer

A controversial bill that would require all asylum seekers who arrive in Australia illegally by boat to be sent to offshore camps has been approved in Parliament's lower house. The legislation has provoked rare division within the governing right-wing coalition.

Three members of Parliament voted against the legislation, in defiance of Prime Minister John Howard. They described the legislation as "profoundly disturbing." Mr. Howard has never faced such open revolt during his 10 years in power.

The legislation would force all asylum seekers who arrive illegally by boat to be held at remote island camps while their asylum applications are processed. Most would probably end up on Nauru, a tiny speck of land in the South Pacific near the Equator.

As the law currently stands, asylum seekers arriving on the Australian mainland have their cases handled inside the country.

The proposed law was passed by 78 votes to 62.

It followed passionate debate both inside and outside the lower house of Parliament.

Before the debate, government lawmaker Wilson Tuckey clashed with opposition leader Kim Beazley outside the Parliament building.

TUCKEY: "Kim, why are you opposing the border protection for all the people?"

BEAZLEY: "Take your tablets, mate."

TUCKEY: "Ah, don't you insult me with tablets…"

BEAZLEY: "Why don't you take your weak, worthless self in there with the weak, worthless legislation?"

TUCKEY: "Don't you call me worthless, you big fat so-and-so."

The legislation now faces an even tougher test in the upper house of parliament, the Senate, where the government has a very slim majority. The Senate vote could come next week.

The legislation was drafted after a group of asylum seekers from the Indonesian province of Papua arrived in Australia by boat earlier this year. There has been a long-running separatist movement in Papua.

The decision to grant them asylum infuriated the authorities in Jakarta and sparked a major diplomatic dispute.

Australian officials say the migration bill is not meant to appease Indonesia. Ministers have said the Papuan affair illustrated that border protection needs to be improved.

Australia accepts more than 10,000 legal asylum seekers a year from such places as Sudan and Afghanistan. However, over the past few years, the government has cracked down on those who try to sneak into the country illegally. It is particularly concerned with stopping those coming in secretly by boat. The policy has strong public support, but human rights activists say it subjects already traumatized people to additional hardship.

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