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Friday, 21 September, 2001, 18:33 GMT 19:33 UK
Howard's refugee gamble paying off
Afghan asylum seekers in Nauru
Asylum seekers have been sent to Nauru
By regional analyst Angie Knox in Sydney

There has been strong popular support for Prime Minister John Howard's tough stand on asylum seekers.

His measures have in the past month seen hundreds of people, trying enter the country illegally by sea, being turned away.

Asylum seekers on board the Tampa
Afghan migrants were picked up by the Norwegian cargo ship, Tampa
Among them, a large group of mainly Afghan refugees are beginning the process of having their asylum applications considered thousands of miles from Australian shores on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru.

Legislation is being rushed through Australia's parliament to tighten up definitions of refugees, and put strict limits on their rights to challenge asylum decisions.

Most controversially, the proposals will enshrine in law Australia's right to turn away boats carrying asylum seekers, and revise the country's migration zone so that future boatpeople landing on Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef or the Cocos and Cartier Islands will not be able to claim asylum in Australia.

Sydney residents mourn
Australians have been deeply affected by events in the US
And now in the wake of the recent terror attacks on the United States, the public is in no mood for generous gestures.

Last week Defence Minister Peter Reith warned against possible terrorist infiltration unless there were firm controls on migration.

It is a fear echoed among many ordinary Australians. We cannot be too careful, one health care worker said.

Anger at the attacks on the US has also spilled out into violence against Muslims.

Race-card accusation

Mr Howard's eyes are set firmly on the federal election, which must be called by the end of the year.

Australian PM John Howard
John Howard: Opinion poll turnaround
Critics accuse him of playing the race card to woo disenchanted voters, particularly those from rural and regional Australia who have been largely bypassed by recent economic growth.

They say the focus on immigration has distracted attention from other election issues - such as the collapse of Ansett, Australia's second largest airline.

Ansett is the latest in a series of major Australian corporate casualties - including the insurance giant HIH and the telecommunications company One Tel - involving tens of thousands of job losses.

Opposition in retreat

But Mr Howard's strategy appears to be paying off. One recent poll put his Liberal Party 20 points ahead of the opposition Labor party, after trailing Labor for some months.

Opposition leader Kim Beazley
Opposition leader Kim Beazley has no alternative to the government's immigration policy
That has put the opposition on the back foot. Shadow Immigration Minister Con Sciacca has acknowledged that Labor's refusal to back tighter immigration laws during the Tampa crisis cost it public support.

Now Labor has agreed to vote through an amended version of the legislation, virtually guaranteeing the laws will be passed.

No solution

The tough new laws may win votes but there's no indication yet that they will halt the flow of asylum seekers.

Since the Tampa incident, another 700 boatpeople have headed for Australia from Indonesia. The government says it is still considering what to do about 250 asylum seekers who have reached Ashmore Reef.

As for the asylum seekers now on Nauru, it seems likely Australia will offer places to some of those found to be genuine refugees. It is creating a new category of three-year renewable "offshore entry visas" for those processed on Nauru or Christmas Island.

But government ministers have no answer as to what Australia will do with the rest of the asylum seekers.

The Australian Government has promised Nauru that they will not remain on the island. But the solution to that problem may have to wait until after the election.

See also:

20 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
Asylum seekers angry and fearful
09 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia talks tough on migrants
04 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia voters back PM over refugees
01 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
Pacific states step into the breach
03 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country Profile: Australia
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