Australian govt backs asylum seeker plan

Last updated 20:00 13/08/2012

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The Australian government has backed a plan to break the asylum seeker policy deadlock which would see centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea re-established to process refugee claims.

The report recommended asylum seekers who attempt to reach Australia by boat should be deported to detention centres in Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and the tiny Pacific atoll of Nauru.

The report aims to curb the flow of future boat arrivals and was drawn up by an expert panel headed by former Australian Defence Force Chief Angus Houston. It combines policy solutions proposed by the major political parties, who remain bitterly divided on the issue.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the Labor caucus agreed to endorse in principle all 22 of the panel’s  recommendations.

Gillard appointed the panel in June, after parliament failed  to pass offshore processing laws in the wake of twin asylum-seeker  boat disasters.

Gillard said plenty of politicians had already claimed the  report had vindicated their positions.

‘‘The truth of this report is it’s endorsed some parts of the  government’s policy but not all of it, and the same can be said for  every other political party,’’ she said.

The panel had also recommended new policy ideas, she said.The government would be working through the rest of the report’s  recommendations over the coming weeks and months.

Human rights group Amnesty International described the report's recommendations as a major setback for Australian refugee policy.

Houston said he was "dismayed" by a newspaper report on Monday, unconfirmed by authorities, that another 67 asylum seekers may be missing at sea.

In commissioning the report, Gillard hoped to break the political deadlock on asylum seekers.

Parliament resumes on Tuesday for the first time since the Senate rejected legislation in June that would have allowed the government to deport asylum seekers to offshore detention centres in a bid to deter others from making the same hazardous journey by rickety fishing boats from Indonesian or Malaysian ports.

More than 7,000 asylum seekers - many from war-torn countries including Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka - have reached the Australian Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island in more than 100 boats so far this year.

The conservative opposition argues that asylum seekers' rights would not be respected by Malaysia because it has not signed the UN Refugee Convention. The opposition argues that detention centres should be reopened in the poor Pacific countries of Nauru and Papua New Guinea where a former Australian conservative government established them a decade ago.

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The report recommends the Nauru and Papua New Guinea centres be quickly re-established to process asylum seekers' refugee claims. It also said that the Malaysian deal needed more work to address human rights concerns, "rather than being discarded or neglected".

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison welcomed the report as an endorsement of his party's policies.

The report also recommends that Australia encourage more people to seek asylum through legitimate channels by immediately increasing the nation's refugee quota from 13,750 to 20,000 and to 27,000 within five years.

"We recommend a policy approach that is hard-headed, but not hard-hearted. That is realistic, not idealistic. That is driven by a sense of humanity as well as fairness," Houston told reporters.

The Australian Customs and Border Protection service said in a statement on Monday that it was aware of reports that a boat carrying 67 might have gone missing between Indonesia and Australia.

"These claims are being investigated," the service said in a statement.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that the group, including 28 Palestinians, told their families that they were sailing for Christmas Island in late June and had not been heard of since.

POLITICIAN TO TAKE LEGAL ACTION

A prominent Papua New Guinea politician says he will take legal action to stop Manus Island detention centre being reopened to house asylum seekers.

National Capital District Governor Powes Parkop, a member of Prime Minister Peter O'Neill's coalition government, says a detention centre contradicts PNG's law and culture.

"You cannot detain people here in PNG - even if they are aliens from outer space - we cannot detain them indefinitely," Mr Parkop says.

"That's the law in PNG. It isn't in our culture to lock people up without a charge."

"So absolutely I will take legal action. I am a member of this government, but the government must obey the law."

Mr Parkop said PNG cannot change its laws to suit a ''good friend'' like Australia, and worried it would set a legal precedent for detaining people without charge in the 37-year-old democracy.

"I call on both governments to obey the law and ... not make a deal for conveniences sake."

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said on Tuesday asylum seekers could begin arriving in Nauru and PNG within a month, after her government agreed to an expert panel's recommendation to reopen detention facilities in both nations.

Ms Gillard said the defence force told her it can construct temporary facilities in both locations while the main centres are being reopened.

"That means that within a month we would hope to see people being processed in Nauru and in PNG," she told reporters in Canberra on Tuesday.

"That's clearly subject to the work of the recon teams that could go as early as Friday."

- AP and AAP

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