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Asylum Seekers Head to Australian Outback to Await Application Processing

The Australian government is transferring scores of asylum seekers to an old outback mining camp in an effort to ease crowding at its main refugee processing center on Christmas Island.

Australian officials say the country's detention facility can no longer cope with a recent influx of boat people intercepted in Australia's northern waters.

To reduce crowding, the government is moving 86 asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka to an unused mining camp in a remote, semi-arid corner of Western Australia.

The camp is in the gold-mining town of Leonora, with a population of 1,200 people. The government is increasing health and education services to help the town cope with the new arrivals.

The president of the town council, Jeff Carter, hopes residents who oppose the relocation of asylum seekers will change their minds.

"Most of the negative feeling is, you know, people should go back where they come from," Carter said. "That is the impression I got. Don't know if it is aimed at the people personally but it is just a perception that 'don't come to our country with your problems,' more than anything. Personally, I've got no great objection. I don't agree with the people coming by the boats but our government does accept them to help them when they come to our shores. Myself personally, I'd just like to help people that way if we can."

The government says the asylum seekers are likely to remain in Leonora for up to six months while their applications to stay in Australia are processed.

Refugee groups hope the gold mining town will provide a haven for the migrants, while the political debate over immigration intensifies.

With a federal election expected in Australia in the coming months, the conservative opposition says it wants to send asylum seekers who enter the country illegally to detention camps in neighboring countries to deter boat people. Critics consider the policy to be cruel and ineffective.

Australia's left-of-center government detains migrants intercepted at sea until their asylum applications are processed. About 4,500 boat people have arrived in the past year.

Australia takes in roughly 13,000 refugees annually as part of official international humanitarian programs.