The head of Amnesty International, Irene Khan, says the Australian government should close its immigration detention center on Christmas Island. On a visit to Australia, Khan accuses the conservative opposition of exploiting voters' fears about asylum seekers for political gain.

Amnesty International Secretary-General Irene Khan says that holding asylum seekers at the Christmas Island processing center will not deter the flow of boat people heading to Australia.

On a visit to Canberra this week, Khan urged the government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to close the camp in the Indian Ocean, about 2,600 kilometers northwest of Perth.

The facility opened last year and houses asylum seekers recently picked up by the Australian navy.

A surge of unauthorized arrivals by boat has put the issue of immigration back in the public spotlight in Australia. Khan says the debate here has often been xenophobic.

The Amnesty International chief blames conservative politicians for whipping up public hysteria.

"I think it is unscrupulous politicians and populist media," Khan said. "There has been a lot of fuss being made about the boat arrivals when actually the numbers arriving by air are much higher. There seems to be a sense of panic when what is really needed here is to handle a humanitarian problem with regard to international standards."

She says the number of boat arrivals in Australia is small compared those arriving in Europe.

Khan, however, calls the Rudd government's immigration policies an improvement on those of the previous conservative administration. She points out Mr. Rudd's decision to grant permanent residency rather than temporary protection visas to those deemed to be genuine refugees and the closure of the outback Woomera detention center and offshore processing facilities in the South Pacific.

Amnesty International says a multilateral approach is needed to deal with the asylum problem.

The Australian government says the surge of migrants arriving by boat is the result of conflicts in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan as well as the global economic crisis.

Australia accepts more than 10,000 refugees a year who are processed through non-governmental agencies in other countries.