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Asylum Debate Stirs Political Debate in Australia

Asylum Debate Stirs Political Debate in Australia

Asylum Debate Stirs Political Debate in Australia

A sharp increase in illegal migrants heading by boat to Australia has prompted accusations that the government has made the country a target for traffickers by easing immigration laws. More than 42 vessels have reached Australian waters over the past year, most carrying Afghans, Sri Lankans and Iraqis.

A small corner shop in suburban Sydney is an unlikely place to hear the horrors that force people from their homes and into the devious and dangerous world of people smugglers.

Hassan Abotbeek fled Iraq and arrived in Australia by boat more than seven years ago. He shows the scars inflicted by Saddam Hussein's soldiers.

"They removed the kidney here. There is seven shots here." he said.

He tried to run away from the Iraqi army so they shot him in his leg too.

Abotbeek still has nightmares about perilous days spent on a leaky fishing vessel that took him across the Timor Sea from Indonesia into Australia's northern waters.

"Very difficult because I came to boat and very dangerous because I do not know what time, what day I die," he said.

After being held at an immigration detention center, Abotbeek was granted refugee status. His family followed him to Australia, after paying smugglers a small fortune to bring them by boat from Indonesia.

"Why they came is just because they have no other options," he said. "They were living a humiliated, life full of oppression, prisons and killings in Iraq."

While thousands of people hope to, like Abotbeek, find safety in Australia, the issue of asylum seekers entering illegally is a divisive one here.

And this year, there has been a surge in the number of illegal migrants. More than 40 boats have been intercepted trying to smuggle refugees into the country. The government says the increase is the result of conflicts in Sri Lanka, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull accuses the Labor government of losing control of the country's borders because it relaxed immigration policies.

"This has been a catastrophic failure in government policy," said Turnbull.

Other conservative politicians warn that these unwanted arrivals could be carrying diseases and include extremists.

Under the previous conservative government, asylum seekers who entered illegally were detained in isolated camps while their applications were processed. This could take years, causing human rights activists to accuse the government of inhumane treatment.

In what has become a fevered debate, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says his approach to the surge in boatpeople is more humane.

"They had kids behind razor wire, they had a range of different interventions which were designed for a domestic political audience, not in dealing in a manner which got the balance right between tough and hard-line on people smugglers on the one hand and being balanced and humane and fair in dealing with asylum seekers on the other," said Mr. Rudd.

Australia has a long history of helping those displaced by conflict and famine. More than half a million refugees have been resettled since the end of the Second World War. More than 10,000 people a year are granted asylum, after applying through international refugee organizations overseas.

But race riots in Sydney four years ago showed the ugly face of Australian nationalism. Human rights activists fear that the opposition's efforts to demonize asylum seekers may unleash similar feelings.

That concern is a small one for many of the refugees.

Hassan Abotbeek's teenage son, Manhal, was rescued by the Australian navy from a sinking boat packed with asylum seekers.

"My brother as soon as he got on he was scared to get on because it was like a fisherman's boat. Length is ten meters, fives meters the width," he said. "Me and some other kids were sleeping next to the engine room because there was no space. It was packed with 400 people. We thought of Australia as paradise because compared to our country it is paradise."

Many others seeking asylum think the same and are willing to risk everything for the chance to start a new life in Australia.

Despite the debate over boatpeople, new figures show that the vast majority of those seeking refugee status arrive not by sea but by plane.