Australian parliament introduces law allowing immigrants to be 'processed offshore'

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The Australian Senate has voted for an amendment which would allow the authorities to take asylum seekers who land on the Australian mainland and hold them in offshore processing camps on Nauru and the Papua New Guinean island of Manus. Until now, only those asylum seekers who were intercepted at sea or who landed on Australian offshore territories like Christmas Island could be held in the camps.

The Migration Amendment (Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals and Other Measures) Bill 2012 was approved by the Australian Senate on 16th May 2013. The opposition Coalition supported the measure. It will have to be approved by the lower house of the parliament as well to become law.

The change to the law has been triggered by a sharp increase in the number of people arriving in Australia by boat in an effort to claim asylum. Over 6,000 asylum seekers have arrived by boat on the Australian mainland in 2013. Most of these were Sri Lankans.

The Conservative government of John Howard tried to introduce the measure in 2006 but failed because of opposition from the Australian Labor Party. On 16th May, the Labor Party was in power. The Australian Green Party, which opposed the measure, has said that the amendment is 'a stain on the national character'.

UNHCR condemns amendment

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has condemned the change to the law. It issued a statement saying 'UNHCR's position has always been for all asylum seekers arriving into Australian territory by whatever means and wherever to be given access to a full and efficient refugee status determination process in Australia .This would be consistent with general practice and in line with international refugee law. If asylum seekers are transferred to another country, the legal responsibility for those asylum seekers may, in some circumstances be shared with that country'.

The UNHCR has already stated that it considers that the camps on Nauru and Manus are less than satisfactory. Earlier in 2013, there was a mass hunger strike on Nauru with many inmates having to be hospitalised.

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