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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 March, 2005, 15:13 GMT
Australia eases asylum rules
Asylum seekers hold signs stand on the refugee detention centres roof in protest at Woomera in Australia's Outback, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2002.
Australia locks up all asylum seekers on their arrival
Australia is set to relax part of its widely criticised asylum policy.

It will release several people from detention who it has refused asylum but currently cannot return home.

A new visa will allow them to live freely in Australia until the political situation in their homeland changes and it is deemed possible to go back.

Amnesty Australia estimates about 12 people will be affected. Some welcomed the shift, but others said asylum seekers should not be locked up at all.

"What we have been looking at is a situation where a person has been judged not to be a refugee... yet for practical purposes that person can't be sent back to the country from whence he came," Prime Minister John Howard said.

He said that in this situation, "it's not reasonable" to continue to detain the person.

But he stressed that his government had no intention of changing its policy of mandatory detention for all arriving asylum seekers, which he said had "worked extremely well".

A refugee co-ordinator for Amnesty Australia, Graham Tom, said he believed the change would apply predominantly to "stateless" people, for example Palestinians and Kuwaiti Bedouins.

Mr Tom said the new visa was welcome but was only a "quick fix".

"We see it as in some ways a positive first step but we really see it as not going far enough. It's a recognition that Australia has problems with indefinite detention but it doesn't go to the heart of the problem which is our mandatory detention regime," he said.

He added that people given this new visa would not be allowed to leave the country and come back, will not be able to challenge their status even if their situation changes, and may find it difficult to find employment given they may leave Australia at any moment.

Greens Senator Bob Brown said it was cruel.

"This is a no hope visa," he said.

"This means that you have no hope of staying in Australia, you're going to be allowed out but you renounce all legal right to fight to stay here.

"It means that if there's future legislation which would change circumstances, you've signed away your legal right to stay here even under those circumstances," he added.

Religion change

The new visa follows the announcement earlier this week that Australia is to review the cases of a group of 30 asylum seekers after some of them converted to Christianity.

The migrants, from Iran and Iraq, are being held in detention centres after their original applications for refugee status were rejected.

Mr Howard said there were concerns that if detainees were sent back to their homelands they could suffer persecution because they had embraced a different religion.

But the main opposition Labor party, however, has warned other detainees could be encouraged to adopt Christianity simply to stay in Australia.

Australia's policy of automatically detaining all asylum seekers while their claims are investigated has drawn international criticism.

Ministers have justified these measures on the grounds of national security and health.

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