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Protesters Criticize Australia’s Offshore Asylum Plan

Activists in support of refugees claiming asylum in Australia rally outside Villawood detention center in Sydney (File 2011)
Activists in support of refugees claiming asylum in Australia rally outside Villawood detention center in Sydney (File 2011)

Australia’s controversial new plans to curb a steady flow of unauthorized asylum seekers are drawing criticism from activists who say officials are copying hard-line immigration policies of the past.

A small, but noisy, group of demonstrators outside offices of the immigration department in Sydney accused the government of reviving policies of the conservative former prime minister, John Howard, who shipped unauthorized asylum seekers to camps in the South Pacific, where they were denied basic rights.

Protesters wore zombie masks to highlight what they say are inhumane policies that have been “brought back from the dead” by the Labor government.

The Labor government has been under pressure to curb the surge of unauthorized refugees, thousands of whom have arrived by boat in recent months. In April, overcrowding at detention facilities led to violent unrest among the detainees.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently struck a deal to move 800 asylum seekers in Australian detention centers to Malaysia. In return, Kuala Lumpur will send 4,000 mostly Burmese refugees who are deemed to be in genuine need of protection to Australia.

The government insists the agreement will disrupt the operations of human traffickers, preventing them from guaranteeing their fee-paying clients direct passage to Australia.

Ian Rintoul from Australia’s Refugee Action Coalition, which organized Friday’s rally, says the present government is behaving as badly towards asylum seekers as the previous government.

“It is Friday the 13th and seemed a very appropriate time to talk about the resurrection of, you know, dead policies or policies that should remain dead. And the Gillard government - its two recent announcements - has talked about the reintroduction of temporary protection visas and now a version of the ‘Pacific Solution’ but rebadged as a ‘Malaysia Solution’ - offshore processing. They are two policies that people thought were dead and buried when we got rid of Howard in 2007. The Gillard government is bringing them back to life.”

The government in Canberra insists that asylum seekers moved from Australia to Malaysia will be well treated. However, human rights groups say Kuala Lumpur has an appalling record of mistreating refugees.

In a report on human rights released Friday, Amnesty International warns Australia not to send asylum seekers to Malaysia. It says camps there are overcrowded and caning is widespread.

Australian immigration officials have also been in talks about re-opening an offshore processing center in Papua, New Guinea.

Despite the controversy, Australia is an immigrant nation. Nearly a quarter of the population was born overseas.

Since the end of World War II, almost 700,000 refugees have been resettled in Australia.

Each year the country grants around 13,000 refugee visas under various international programs.