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Page last updated at 11:20 GMT, Friday, 19 December 2008

Australia opens detention centre

Asylum seekers in Nauru (file image from 2001)
Mr Rudd ended compulsory detentions in Nauru and PNG

The Australian government has decided to open a controversial new detention centre on Christmas Island, reversing its previous policy on the issue.

The centre was commissioned by the previous government, and completed a few months ago. The new administration had been resisting pressure to open it.

But seven boatloads of asylum seekers have been intercepted trying to reach Australia in the past three months.

Analysts say the government is struggling with the influx of people.

'Bleak and forbidding'

When Kevin Rudd took power in 2007, he was quick to distance himself from the former government's policy of detaining all asylum seekers.

He inherited the new 800-bed, A$400m (182m) Christmas Island facility, but resisted using it, saying it was unsuitable for families.

Refugee advocates who have toured the facility describe it as extremely harsh, and say that it resembles a prison.

Kevin Rudd in Bali, 10th Dec
Critics say Mr Rudd has made Australia more attractive to people smugglers
"It's bleak, it's forbidding, it's a long way from the rest of the community on Christmas Island and it's a very unwelcoming place," Human Rights Commissioner Graeme Innes told local radio.

But 164 asylum seekers have been caught trying to enter the country since January, up from 148 last year, and the authorities have decided to open the centre anyway.

Thirty-seven men - believed to be a mix of Afghans and Middle Eastern nationals - will arrive there over the weekend, having been intercepted in an unauthorised boat off the north-east of Darwin on Tuesday.

Women and children will not be held at the new facility, according to a spokesman for the Immigration Department.

Soft touch?

When Mr Rudd took office, he brought in a number of changes to his predecessor John Howard's hard-line migration policy.

New immigration minister Chris Evans ended Mr Howard's "Pacific Solution" - in which asylum seekers were all detained in offshore facilities on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea or in Nauru.

He also instigated new regulations giving asylum seekers access to lawyers, limiting the detention period to 12 months and issuing permanent visas instead of three-year visas to qualifying refugees.

The opposition claims that this liberalisation of the country's asylum policies has made Australia more attractive to migrants, and also people smugglers.

But Mr Rudd's Labor government insists the policy changes are not to blame for the latest boat arrivals.



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