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Human Rights Groups Critical of Australian Compassion - 2002-08-26

Australians are marking the first anniversary of the so-called "Tampa incident" in which the government refused entry to a boatload of illegal asylum seekers and introduced new stricter immigration policies. Canberra says the policies are working to stem to flow of illegal people trafficking. But human rights groups and refugee advocates remain critical, saying Australia has lost its reputation for compassion.

A year ago today the Australian government turned away a Norwegian cargo ship, Tampa, carrying more than 400 mainly Afghan asylum seekers it had rescued from a sinking Indonesian ferry. After days of a tense off-shore stand-off and frantic diplomatic talks, Australia transported the illegal immigrants to third countries until their visa applications could be processed.

The Tampa affair marked the start of the so-called "fortress Australia" policy designed to keep out unwanted arrivals of illegal asylum seekers. Border security was increased. The government declared that anyone arriving illegally on its remote islands would not be granted temporary asylum. And boatloads of refugees using Indonesia as a transit point - were either turned back or sent to temporary visa processing camps in third countries in the South Pacific.

These policies proved popular with most Australians, who enthusiastically gave Prime Minister John Howard a third term in office in last November's elections.

One-hundred-thirty of the Tampa refugees have been granted political asylum in New Zealand. The majority of the others are still being held in Australian-sponsored detention centers in the Pacific on Papua New Guinea and on Nauru, the world's smallest republic. A few have been forced to return to Afghanistan after the applications for refugee status were rejected.

The Australian government insists its so-called 'Pacific Solution' has been a success. Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock says the Tampa incident was an important turning point in focusing national and regional attention on the global refugee and people smuggling crisis. The government says the number of unauthorized arrivals traveling illegally by boat from Indonesia to Australia's rugged northwestern coastline has almost dried up. Australia continues, however, to accept 12,000 immigrants from authorized humanitarian programs every year.

But Amnesty International says the Australian government's stance towards illegal immigration has damaged the country's reputation for fairness and humanity. Amnesty's Graham Thoms says the policy of sending asylum seekers to detention camps only continues the cycle of fear and uncertainty the refugees are fleeing.

"I think you can argue it's stemmed the flow of people coming to Australia. It hasn't stopped people committing human rights abuses around the world and it hasn't stopped refugees fleeing their own countries and ending up in the Third World where the majority of refugees have always ended up," he says. "So in that sense who is it a solution for? I guess it has been a solution for the Department of Immigration but whether that's a solution for human rights is another question."

Australia automatically detains all asylum seekers that do reach its shores until their claims for refugee status are processed. Authorities say mandatory detention is necessary for health and security reasons. Illegal refugees are usually processed within months, but some have waited as long as five years to have their visa requests processed.