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Illegal Migrants Are Central Issue in Australia Election

The issue of refugees from the Middle East and Asia is dominating Australia's election campaign ahead of the November 10 ballot. The conservative prime minister has gotten an unexpected boost in opinion polls since taking a very hardline stance to keep illegal migrants out of the country.

The change in fortunes for Australian Prime Minister John Howard came in August when faced with what turned out to be an international crisis over the fate of some 400 mostly Afghan asylum seekers. He stood firm in his refusal to allow the migrants in after they were rescued at sea when the boat taking them illegally to Australia sank.

The incident was one of a growing of number of cases in which asylum seekers try to enter Australia illegally by boat. And the prime minister's decision to use this case to show the need for Australia to tighten its immigration policies appealed to voters.

Mr. Howard trailed his principal opponent, Labor Party leader Kim Beazley, in the opinion polls. But the prime minister now has a very comfortable lead and is expected to win a third term.

Despite this, Labor leader Kim Beazley is trying to turn the asylum issue into a human rights concern for the thousands of people who risk their lives to make the dangerous sea journey to Australia. He said the Howard government should take some responsibility since its policies on asylum had failed to stem the flow of illegal immigrants and people smuggling.

"What we have here is a human tragedy. The human tragedy is caused by an evil trade," she said. "We've supported Howard on every proposition he's put forward to deal with that evil trade and still they come and in some instances they sink off shore and die. We've got to stop this," she said.

Some members of Labor also say the Howard government's policies are racist, with most rejected asylum seekers being from the Middle East or South Asia. The prime minister not only denied the charge but points out that Labor's ideas on asylum seekers don't differ much from his own.

"I totally reject any suggestions that we have introduced the race card and could I just make the logical point that ... the Labor Party's policy on illegal immigration is ... the same as ours," he said.

Australia's social justice commissioner has attacked both major parties over their attitudes toward refugees, saying they were 'despicable and obscene.' Political commentator Gerard Henderson said despite the criticism from some quarters, the asylum issue is pushing the Howard administration toward a third term in office.

"I don't see any great negative in this for the government except I would be conscious of the fact that there would be some Christian groups and organizations which would consider perhaps that the government had taken too hard an attitude on this," he said. But by and large I think, rightly or wrongly, it's a plus rather than a negative for the government."

Of course not everyone here agrees with the prime minister's refusal to take in the boat people. There have been several noisy street demonstrations. Critics include Green Party Senator Bob Brown.

"What we are seeing is the government moving to legalize queue jumpers with a wad of money in their back pocket," he said. "If you've got $250,000 or you've been a manager of a company with more than 50 employees you can get straight into Australia under the Howard policies," he said. But if you're poor and you're fleeing terror then you're likely to be met with a gunboat."

Both the Labor opposition and the government claim their views on asylum are fair and generous. Twelve-thousand refugees are allowed to settle in Australia every year.

The issue has taken on more importance since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States and the current war on suspected terrorists in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Howard is making the immigration issue one of security and he is asking voters to stick with an experienced government in this time of uncertainty.

The Labor Party, which usually attracts voters with its focus on domestic issues such as health care and education, doesn't appear to be able to use that advantage in this election.