Australia’s Opposition Pledges Tougher Asylum Laws as Election Race Heats Up

Rob Taylor, Reuters, August 15, 2013

Australia’s opposition, tipped to win next month’s election, promised on Friday to revive tough laws barring thousands of asylum seekers already in Australia from settling permanently in a pitch to voters concerned by immigration.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, whose conservatives lead Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s ruling Labor in surveys ahead of the September 7 ballot, said he would also block access to court appeals for up to 30,000 asylum seekers if they are refused as refugees.

“This is our country and we determine who comes here,” said Abbott in an echo of strongly nationalist border control sentiments championed by the country’s last conservative leader, John Howard, before Labor swept him from power in 2007.

Abbott’s conservatives and Rudd’s center-left government have been vying with each other to appear tough in promising to curb an influx of asylum seekers arriving by boat. Polls show immigration to be is a major issue for millions of voters.

Around 15,000 asylum seekers have arrived this year, prompting Rudd in July to announce a deal to send all boat arrivals to detention in Papua New Guinea for processing and eventual settlement there if they are found to be refugees.

Both sides are aware that swing seats in western Sydney, home to 2 million people, will be largely won or lost on issues of economic performance and border security.

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Abbott has already promised to appoint a military commander to take charge of asylum issues in an operation dubbed “sovereign borders”. He said if he won power, the 30,000 asylum seekers in Australia would only receive temporary protection visas if they are found to be refugees. That would mean they could be sent to their home country in the future.

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Abbott’s immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, acknowledged the policy, criticized by the United Nations and human rights groups, could be challenged in the courts. Tougher immigration laws have already been subject to several legal setbacks.

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