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Polls Slam Australia's PM for Handling of Surge in Refugees


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Opinion polls show that many Australians are unhappy with the way Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is handling the rising number of boat people trying to reach the country. Scores of boats carrying unauthorized arrivals from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq have been intercepted in Australian waters this year, placing mounting pressure on the Labor leader.

The latest opinion poll in The Australian newspaper shows that 53 percent of voters believe that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is not handling the boat people issue well, against 31 percent who think that he is.

A surge in asylum seekers heading into Australia's northern waters this year has focused attention on the issue.

Earlier this week Mr. Rudd confronted some of his critics at a community meeting in the town of Bathurst in New South Wales. "Just stick your hand up in the air and we'll get through as many as we can in the time available. Sir, you have got your hand up there. Over to you. Someone will bring you a microphone," he said.

He has held 19 of these community gatherings to meet voters around the country.

The sharp increase in the number of boat people was a dominant theme at the forum in Bathurst.

Critics accuse the government of dithering in the face of a humanitarian crisis, because boat people are either processed on an outlying island or, in one recent case, taken to Indonesia, where the would-be refugees have refused to go ashore.

Elysha Hickey, a 22-year-old student, wants to know why Mr. Rudd had not shown more compassion for those seeking asylum. "Look Kevin, enough is enough when it comes to asylum seekers. For the last six weeks it's been going around and around in circles. Why don't you take the opportunity to completely change the discourse, the way that Australians think about asylum seekers and stop this around in circles business and just stop this fear mongering?," Hickey said.

Mr. Rudd says his government has a clear plan to deal with the problem. "Everything that we are implementing at present is entirely consistent, entirely consistent with what we put to the Australian people before the last election. Second point is this - it's a responsible policy in the national interest. It seeks to be hardline on people smugglers. It seeks to be humane in dealing with asylum seekers," he said.

Mr. Rudd has sent Foreign Minister Stephen Smith to Sri Lanka for talks on how both countries can reduce the number of boat people. The government says the increase is largely because of conflicts in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Conservatives say the Labor government's relaxation of policies for handling boat people has led people smugglers to view Australia as a soft target. They accuse Mr. Rudd of losing control of the borders.

At the community meeting in New South Wales, there was, however, support for the prime minister's stance. "I think he's dealing with an extremely delicate and difficult issue and he's a man of principle and he seems to me to be sticking to his principles," one person said.

Under former Prime Minister John Howard, migrants who tried to enter the country illegally were detained in isolated facilities, often for years, while their asylum requests were processed. The current government no longer requires mandatory detention. "Compared with the previous government there is a much more humane and more conciliatory and much more reconciled approach to these sorts of problems," said one man.

In the tropical city of Darwin, where the navy has brought in several asylum vessels, there is sympathy for those who risk their lives attempting to cross the Indian Ocean or the Timor Sea by boat.

Kevin Kadirgamar is the president of the Multicultural Youth Council of the Northern Territory. "If people are that desperate to jump on a boat and sail for a few months in some cases to get to Australia, a strange country, it tells that they are quite desperate," he said.

Refugee advocate Jamal Daoud urges the government to do more to help those who are accepted as refugees. "These people are suffering from mental health problems from post-traumatic disorders and this is why I think [the] Australian government should spend more money on settlements services in regard to addressing the issues they suffered in the journey to Australia," he said.

Most migrants who reach Australia by boat are eventually deemed to need protection. Australia resettles about 13,000 refugees under official humanitarian programs each year.

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