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Australia's Howard Forced to Scrap Controversial Asylum Law


Australia's conservative government has withdrawn a controversial asylum bill before the Senate looked ready to defeat it. Prime Minister John Howard, whose 10 years in office have been partially defined by refugee issues, acknowledged defections in his own party forced him to abandon the proposed law.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard Monday pulled his proposed tougher asylum bill because it was heading for an embarrassing defeat in the Senate.

The bill aimed to cut down on illegal immigration by broadening current laws. It would have required all asylum seekers, arriving in Australia by boat, to be sent to government-run detention centers on nearby Pacific island nations while their claims were processed.

Mr. Howard acknowledged defections in his own conservative party negated his slim majority in the Senate. Despite the backlash, Mr. Howard says he believes most Australians support the legislation.

"Nothing unusual about people occasionally having a different view from the majority. But it is a majority view, a strongly held majority view, and I would naturally ask that that be taken into account," he said.

Critics say the bill would have made it much tougher for genuine refugees to be able to settle in Australia. And it would have subjected possible refugees to lengthy stays in camps, which could be traumatizing.

Senator Steve Fielding, from the minority Family First Party, says he would have voted against the bill, as existing asylum measures are adequate.

"Most Australian will realize, well, there are rules and it would be absolute chaos if every other country did what Australia is proposing," he noted. "It's ludicrous!"

The Howard government proposed the new asylum law, passed by the lower house last week, after a diplomatic dispute earlier this year with Indonesia. Jakarta withdrew its ambassador to Australia in protest after it gave temporary asylum to 42 separatists from Indonesia's Papua province.

Mr. Howard Monday said he did not know if Indonesia would be unhappy that the legislation has been dropped, but he said it was not his main concern.

The Howard government argues the bill was designed to strengthen border security and would have made asylum seekers think twice before making the hazardous journey into Australian waters.

Australia accepts more than 12,000 legal asylum seekers every year.