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Australia Rejects Criticism on Dealing with Illegal Immigrants - 2001-11-16

Australia has rejected criticism from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees of its hardline stance on illegal immigrants. The UNHCR accuses Australia of defying international treaty by refusing entry to asylum seekers and instead, shipping them to neighboring Pacific island nations.

Canberra has hit back at criticism of its policy of refusing to process refugee claims in Australia. The head of the United Nations refugee organization says Canberra is resorting to the "law of the jungle" by sending asylum seekers to small Pacific island nations for processing.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock accuses the UNHCR of squandering vast sums of money on an outdated system for dealing with the world's refugees. "The UNHCR spends about a little short of a billion dollars looking after about 21.5 million refugees and people of concern. And yet, developed countries are now having to spend on an asylum system in which 500,000 people are claiming asylum. (And only) about 50,000 will be found to be refugees … it's an obscene waste of resources for a system which is about to collapse," Ruddock said.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that while he understands Australia's concerns about people smuggling, international agreements must be followed and individual countries should not decide their own rules. "Australia obviously has a problem. So I have some sensitivity with that but I want to repeat at the same time the answer cannot simply be (to) keep them out. You need to organize it in a way that we go for the law, not the law of the jungle," Lubbers said.

Australia adopted the new policy after a freighter rescued more than 400 asylum seekers just outside Australian waters in late August and tried to bring them ashore. Canberra refused entry and instead sent them to New Zealand and Nauru for processing. Since then, hundreds more have been sent to neighboring Pacific islands.

The policy helped in the victory of Prime Minister John Howard's government in last week's national elections.