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Australia panel urges offshore asylum centres

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A new report commissioned by the Australian government on how best to deal with asylum seekers is recommending that the state take in more refugees by official means in order to deter illegal entries.

An expert panel headed by former defence chief Angus Houston said on Monday that Canberra should introduce greater disincentives to stop would-be refugees from paying people-smugglers to bring them by boat to Australia.

Houston's panel also recommended that Australia increase its humanitarian intake from some 13,000 to about 20,000 places a year, and up to 27,000 within five years. This is to help deter boat people from risking their lives at sea, his report said.

Australian authorities have intercepted three boats carrying 178 asylum seekers in just the last two days. The interceptions take the number of asylum seekers picked up this month to 650.

The much-awaited independent report also said Australia should transfer asylum-seekers offshore to places such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea as part of a "comprehensive regional network".

It called on Canberra to work closely with Indonesia, a transit country for many boat people, and Malaysia to stem the influx of maritime arrivals as well as lift its annual humanitarian intake.

"Over time, a comprehensive regional framework will reduce the lure of irregular maritime migration but until then, the panel believes Australia needs to include the prospect of processing options outside of Australia," the report said.

"To support this, it is the panel's view that the Australian parliament should agree, as a matter of urgency, to legislation that will allow for the processing of irregular maritime arrivals in locations outside Australia."

'Sense of humanity'

More than 100 boats carrying over 7,500 suspected asylum-seekers have arrived in Australia so far this year, after the government failed to pass legislation aimed at deterring them by sending them to Malaysia.

The so-called "Malaysia solution" would have seen boat people arriving in Australia transferred to the Southeast Asian nation, with Canberra resettling thousands of that country's registered refugees in return.

The proposal was scuttled by the opposition and the Greens, who refused to pass laws allowing off-shore processing, prompting the government to ask Houston to review the policy in hopes of breaking the political deadlock.

Houston's panel then recommended the government lift its annual humanitarian intake to about 20,000, and consider increasing it further within five years.

"We recommend a policy approach that is hard-headed, but not hard-hearted, that is realistic not idealistic, that is driven by a sense of humanity as well as fairness," Houston said.

The retired air chief marshal said some 964 asylum-seekers and crew had lost their lives at sea while trying to making it to Australia since late 2001, with 604 of these perishing since October 2009.

"Like all Australians, we are deeply concerned about this tragic loss of life at sea," he said. "To do nothing is unacceptable."

The report also said those who arrive by boat should not be eligible to sponsor family members to join them in Australia.

Canberra should also consider turning back boats in the future, but only if operational, safety and legal conditions are met, the report recommended.


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