Australia's Lower House of Parliament on Wednesday voted for a legislation that re-opens offshore centers set up in the remote Pacific island state of Nauru and Papua New Guinea for processing asylum claims.
The House cleared the measure with overwhelming majority as only two lawmakers - an independent and one from the Australian Greens party - voted against it. The legislation still has to secure the approval of the Senate to come into force.
Nevertheless, the Senate is also expected to pass the bill as it does not include a refugee-swap deal reached earlier with Malaysia. That deal would have allowed Australia to send 800 asylum-seekers to that country in exchange for accepting 4,000 confirmed refugees from there over the next four years.
The Malaysia deal was earlier backed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who now appears to have abandoned it in favor of reopening the processing centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea as demanded by the Opposition.
Gillard said on Tuesday that she expected to reopen the offshore processing centers in Nauru and Papua "within a month," adding that she had received positive responses from the leaders of the two nations when she told them about the idea.
In June, the Senate had voted out a bill that would have allowed the Australian government to reopen a detention center in Nauru and transfer hundreds of asylum seekers to Malaysia for processing. The Opposition defeated the measure with the support of the Greens party, a member of the ruling coalition.
Besides, the Opposition had been calling for a return to the controversial policy of former Premier John Howard, which allowed sending people arriving on Australian shores illegally by boats to Nauru. The policy was scrapped when the Labor Party came to power.
The Opposition Liberal Party objects to deporting asylum seekers to Malaysia while their cases were being considered, as the South-East Asian nation is not a signatory to the U.N. convention to protect refugees. They voted against the bill in June as it included both the Nauru and Malaysia options.
The latest development comes just two days after an independent panel of experts commissioned by the Australian government recommended setting up offshore processing centers for tackling the steadily increasing influx of asylum-seekers into the country.
In its final report submitted to the government on Monday, the panel recommended that the currently dysfunctional offshore processing facilities in Nauru and Papua New Guinea should be reopened "as soon as practical" as part of a "comprehensive regional network" to deal with the issue.
The panel also urged the government not to abandon a refugee-swap deal reached earlier with Malaysia and called for the agreement "to be built on further, rather than being discarded or neglected." It also called for strengthening the "safeguards and accountability" measures outlined in the deal.
The 22 recommendations made by the panel included increasing Australia's annual humanitarian intake to 20,000 from the current 13,759, increasing the figure to about 27,000 over the next five years, not allowing asylum seekers who arrive by boat to sponsor family members to come to Australia, enhancing cooperation with Indonesia on surveillance as well as search and rescue operations, reviewing laws as well as the process of determining refugee status.
Australia has become a coveted destination for desperate people from impoverished and war-torn countries seeking a new life. Many of them attempt to enter the country by making a perilous 230-mile voyage from Indonesia in rickety fishing boats, which are often operated by human-traffickers. Scores of them perish every year in accidents at sea while attempting the journey.
Incidentally, the debate on detention and treatment of asylum seekers, along with their proposed deportation to another country for processing, had gained momentum in Australia after more than 150 asylum seekers were killed in separative boat accidents in less than a week in June.
by RTT Staff Writer
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