Australia has announced a major overhaul of its controversial asylum laws. Under the changes, families with children will be freed from detention while their asylum claims are processed. Long-term detainees will also have their cases reviewed by an independent arbiter.

The government in Canberra on Friday announced a series of concessions on the controversial policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers.

Families with children will be allowed to live in the community rather than behind the fences of an immigration center. There will also be moves to limit the time the authorities take to process asylum applications.

Thousands of refugees who have been granted temporary visas will be allowed to stay in Australia permanently.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard says border protection will not be compromised as a result of the changes.

But Mr. Howard says Australia will now have a more humane asylum policy.

"You either have a mandatory detention system or you don't and what we now have, I believe, and what we will have even more so after these changes are a mandatory detention system with a softer edge,"John Howard said.

This softening of Australia's stand on asylum seekers who enter the country illegally follows growing dissent from within the government's own ranks.

Rebel legislators have been agitating for change and they have now secured a significant victory.

In return the Prime Minister has avoided an embarrassing public feud with party colleagues.

Opinion among refugee activists is split. Some have said the changes are substantive and long overdue, while others say they do not go far enough.

Australia currently has 900 detainees in its immigration camps, including around 60 children.

The government automatically detains all asylum seekers who enter the country illegally while their applications are processed, on the grounds of health and national security.

Australia allows 13,000 refugees to settle every year under official humanitarian programs.