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Australia No Longer to Automatically Jail Asylum Seekers

The majority of asylum seekers will no longer be detained under major immigration reforms announced by the Australian government. In a further softening of the country's uncompromising stance on illegal arrivals, the Immigration Minister Chris Evans says officials will only be able to hold an asylum seeker if they are seen to pose a danger to the community. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

Australia has scrapped most of its tough rules on locking up asylum seekers, although those deemed to be security risks will still be held in custody.

The Labor government has said that the policy of detaining asylum seekers indefinitely while they go through the often complicated and time-consuming process of applying for refugee status was no longer acceptable.

The mandatory detention of unauthorized arrivals has been criticized as inhuman by rights groups and prompted several gruesome protests by inmates at Australian detention centers. In recent years detainees have sown their lips together to show their frustrations, while others have thrown themselves on razor wire fences.

The softening of this controversial policy began under Australia's previous Conservative government, which decided that women and children who were seeking asylum could live in the community while their claims were processed.

Australian Immigration Minister Senator Chris Evans says the latest overhaul of the laws will allow the authorities to show compassion for asylum seekers while maintaining strong border protection measures.

"People will be mandatorally detained on arrival and once we've completed health, security and identity checks, if they are no threat to the community they will be able to be moved into the community," he said. "What we'll be looking at is whether people pose a risk. It's a risk management strategy and if they don't pose a risk to the community, there is no need for them to be in detention."

Opposition politicians aren't convinced. They've insisted the Labor government has 'gone soft' on border protection and that the measures will encourage more asylum seekers to try to reach Australia.

The government's decision has, however, been welcomed by campaigners who have fought a long battle against Australia's asylum polices.

Refugee Advocate Marion Le says the Immigration Minister is promising a more compassionate approach.

"My understanding would be that he's actually looking at releasing all people who are now detained except those who pose a verifiable I hope, risk to the Australian public or to security," said Le.

There are 385 people currently being held in Australia's immigration detention centers. Most have overstayed their visas while 64 inmates are applying for political asylum.

Australia has long been a destination for people from poor, often war-torn countries wishing to start a new life, including many Iraq and Afghanistan.

Canberra allocates about 12,000 places for refugees under official humanitarian policy as part of its annual migration program.