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Australia Toughens Asylum Rules

Australian refugee groups and opposition politicians have criticized the government's decision to toughen its immigration policy. Under the new rules any migrants without proper documentation arriving by boat on the mainland will be sent for processing at offshore camps. Critics claim the move is an attempt to appease Indonesia following a diplomatic row over the granting of temporary visas to a group of Papuan asylum seekers.

From now on any illegal migrants arriving by boat in Australia will be transferred to processing centers on the Australian territory of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, or facilities in Papua New Guinea or the tiny republic of Nauru.

The migrants will wait there while their asylum applications are heard.

Critics call the move an attempt to appease the Jakarta government.

Indonesia is unhappy at Australia's recent decision to grant temporary visas to 42 asylum seekers from its troubled province of Papua.

Australian opposition leader Kim Beazley says there is no doubt the change in immigration policy has been forced by pressure from Indonesia.

"What any country now knows is that they've got a prime minister they can sit on, and that he will, if they've got some part of Australian law that they object to, there's a very good chance that when they sit on the prime minister, they will get a result," Beazley said.

In March, Indonesia recalled its envoy to Canberra over the decision to grant the visas to the Papuans, claiming Australia was meddling in its internal affairs and sympathized with the province's pro-independence movement.

The row threatened to damage the close ties that have developed between the two countries over the past few years.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard says the dispute with the Indonesians was the not the reason for the new immigration policy.

"It's not done as a concession to Indonesia. Having said that, the bilateral relationship, as you all know, between Indonesia and Australia particularly in relation to matters concerning unauthorized arrivals, but not only in relation to that, is very important," he said.

Human rights group Amnesty International says the new immigration policies could violate Australia's commitments under international refugee conventions. The group says treating illegal migrants who arrive by boat differently from those who arrive by plane breaches the obligation to treat all migrants equally.

Local refugee groups say that asylum seekers who reach Australia have a right to seek protection and have their cases heard there.

Canberra insists the new laws will not prevent it from meeting its international obligations to asylum seekers.