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Australia Offers Permanent Home to Thousands of Asylum Seekers - 2004-07-13

In a policy reversal, Australia will offer thousands of asylum seekers currently on temporary visas the chance to apply for permanent residency. The move follows lobbying from opposition legislators seeking a more compassionate approach. Up to 10,000 people are expected to be eligible to apply to stay in Australia indefinitely.

Under the old rules, holders of temporary protection visas had to prove that they continued to need asylum, or they would face deportation. That process now ends, giving thousands of refugees the opportunity to apply to stay permanently.

The changes are a distinct softening of Australia's hard-line approach to asylum. Previously, many refugees who were granted temporary protection visas complained of the uncertainty and stress that the system heaped upon them.

The temporary visas were introduced five years ago in response to a rise in the number of asylum seekers heading to Australia by boat from Indonesia. The visas were usually valid for three years and could be renewed, although the holders could not bring their families to Australia.

The measures were designed to deter boat people and the smugglers who ferried them into Australian waters.

The Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone says the policy has worked and the issue of asylum has been reassessed.

"Firstly, we've been very successful with people smuggling but we have pretty much stemmed the flow of boats, so that's a changed circumstance," she says. "And of course, people who had temporary protection visas, the refugees who were given protection, have been out there in the community and we hear from lots of regional areas that they've really worked at it and fitted in well."

Many opposition politicians have long pushed for easier visa rules. Now, some members of the government's party in Parliament also are saying it is time to adopt a more compassionate approach.

Australia takes in about 10,000 refugees a year after their claims for asylum have been processed overseas. However, migrants who enter the country illegally are held in detention while their asylum claims are assessed. If they are considered to be in need of asylum, the refuges are released into the community.

Refugee advocates have offered mixed views on the visa changes. Some have welcomed what they describe as a more pragmatic approach.

Other activists say is simply "rampant political opportunism" ahead of a federal election expected later this year.