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Australia passes law to send boatpeople to other nations

SYDNEY -- Australia's Parliament has passed a law allowing it to transfer asylum-seekers arriving by boat to other countries, despite objections that refugees could be held indefinitely in remote camps.

The Senate, Parliament's upper house, passed the legislation late Thursday after months of political wrangling, enabling the government to send boatpeople to Papua New Guinea and tiny Nauru to have their refugee claims processed.

It represents a compromise by the center-left Labor government, which had previously abandoned offshore processing — Australian policy under former Conservative Prime Minister John Howard.

“I cannot honestly say legislation we consider today sits comfortably in the narrative of the Labor Party, a party based on social justice, compassion and a fair go,” Labor Senator Gavin Marshall said.

The government and Tony Abbott's conservative opposition — who have advocated reopening Nauru and also turning back asylum-seeker boats where possible — voted together to pass the legislation.

The left-leaning Greens pushed for several amendments to provide greater human rights protections and prevent asylum-seekers from being held offshore for more than 12 months, but they were rejected.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard's administration has struggled to cope with a record influx of boatpeople this year, many originally from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq who make their way to Australia via Asia.

It hopes the prospect of years in detention on remote Pacific islands will deter asylum-seekers from attempting the dangerous sea voyage, which has cost hundreds of lives over the past decade.

But Greens Senator Sarah Hanson Young warned that the law allowed for the indefinite detention of asylum-seekers, including children.

“There are 10 unaccompanied minors ... who'll be among the first people sent to Nauru,” she said.

“Why is the government so reluctant to ensure these minors have access to these appropriate protection and welfare arrangements?”

The government has sent advance parties to check conditions in shuttered camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea and has admitted that asylum-seekers are likely to be housed in tents until permanent accommodation can be provided.

The new law drew condemnation from human rights activists Friday, who expressed alarm that asylum-seekers arriving by boat would be processed offshore while those who arrived by plane would remain in Australia.

The Australian Human Rights Commission's Gillian Triggs said she was concerned that boatpeople “may be exposed to lengthy periods of time in regional processing countries, without a durable resettlement solution.”

The United States-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized the Parliament's swift approval of the law, saying it marked a shift in refugee policy that “appears arbitrary and discriminatory.”

“Australia's new offshore processing law is a giant step backward in the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers,” HRW's Bill Frelick said.

“Australia again seeks to shunt desperate boat people to remote camps, perhaps for years, to punish them for arriving uninvited by sea.”

The government moved to reintroduce off-shore processing after an independent panel it commissioned recommended the measure as a disincentive to people-smuggling following a series of fatal sinkings.

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