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Major Parties Toughen Asylum Policies Before Australian Election

Australia is negotiating with East Timor to set up off-shore processing camps for asylum applicants under tough new rules Prime Minister Julia Gillard has proposed. Ms. Gillard is responding to community concerns about the flow of boat people heading into Australia's northern waters as a general election approaches.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard wants to base Australia's processing of asylum seekers in East Timor, its impoverished northern neighbor. The idea is part of efforts to stem a steady flow of boat people to Australia.

"A regional processing center removes the incentive once and for all for the people smugglers to send boats to Australia," she said. "Why risk a dangerous journey if you will simply be returned to the regional processing center? To this end I can report today that I've already taken steps to achieve this goal. Irregular migration is a global challenge and like all global challenges it can only be tackled by nations working together."

This year, more than 70 vessels have been intercepted on the way to Australia. Most of the migrants aboard have been Afghans and Sri Lankans.

Australia's biggest immigration center, on Christmas Island, is overflowing. And many Australian voters are concerned about the prospect of more boats smuggling in illegal migrants.

The conservative opposition also has announced tough immigration policies. It says if returned to power, it would simply turn the boats around and send them back. Other asylum seekers would be transported to processing camps in the South Pacific.

Under opposition leader Tony Abbott's plan, those granted asylum would not receive permanent visas as they do now, and would be allowed to stay in Australia for just three years.

To remain in the country longer, refugees would have to prove they would face persecution if they were sent home.

Refugee advocates and the Australian Greens accuse the leading parties of "trading in xenophobia" to win votes by demonizing asylum seekers.

Australia accepts about 13,000 refugees every year under official international programs. Official figures show that the vast majority of asylum seekers who arrive by boat are eventually deemed to be genuine refugees.