An Australian government immigration report shows most asylum seekers who arrived on the continent illegally, between 1999 and 2000, have been given visas to stay. The finding challenges claims by human rights groups that the conservative government has turned away hundreds of genuine asylum seekers - claiming there were economic migrants.
In its annual report released Wednesday, the Immigration Ministry said that 90 percent of illegal immigrants arriving by boat have been granted protection in Australia. The report covers the period between 1999 and 2002, when more than 9,100 asylum seekers - mostly from Afghanistan and Iraq - entered Australia illegally by sea. More than 8,200 of them now have visas.
The time frame coincides with the conservative government's efforts to crackdown on a flood of illegal boat people using Indonesia as a transit point.
Prime Minister John Howard introduced stricter immigration procedures and began using the navy to intercept boats carry asylum seekers before they reached Australian soil. The policy drew international attention in August 2001, when a Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, was held offshore for weeks carrying more than 400 refugees from Afghanistan. The Tampa had rescued the group from a sinking fishing boat in the Indian Ocean.
Australia's refusal to accept them marked the beginning of the controversial 'Pacific Solution.' The boat people were transported to refugee processing centers on the Pacific island states of Papua New Guinea and Nauru - while applying for asylum in Australia. Civic and human rights groups criticized the process for giving the refugees fewer rights and said the camps were "inhumane."
Government critics say the report shows that the conservatives were wrong by saying many of these refugees were economic migrants and not genuinely fleeing persecution. But the Immigration Ministry Wednesday said the report also shows that of the 1,500 or so asylum seekers processed in these offshore camps - roughly half had their applications rejected.
The Immigration Ministry says the new procedures taken by the Howard government have stemmed the flow of illegal boat arrivals from 4,000 three years ago to just 60 a year ago.
Australia re-settles around 12,000 refugees every year under organized humanitarian programs.