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Aus announces 'more humane' refugee policy

world Updated: Jul 29, 2008 10:06 IST

Australia on Tuesday announced a "more humane" policy towards refugees, saying most asylum seekers will no longer be automatically locked up when they arrive in the country.

The move by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's centre-left Labor government, which won power last November, overturns a widely-criticised mandatory detention system which has seen some asylum seekers held in camps for years.

"A person who poses no danger to the community will be able to remain in the community while their visa status is resolved," Immigration Minister Chris Evans said.

The immigration department would have to justify the detention of any refugees every three months, and an ombudsman would review cases of anyone held for more than six months, Evans told reporters.

Children and their families will no longer be held in detention centres, he said, scrapping one of the most controversial aspects of the former policy.

"This isn't about a mass opening of the gates, this is about a more humane treatment of asylum seekers, a more humane detention policy," Evans said.

"We think this will allow us to maintain strong border security but also treat people with human dignity."

Evans said that he would soon receive a departmental review of the cases of about 380 people who are now in detention and that the new policy would apply when deciding their fate.

Since taking over the immigration portfolio last year, he said, he had already reviewed the cases of 72 detainees who had been held for more than two years.

Of those, 31 should not have been detained and were on the way to obtaining visas, 24 would be deported and 17 people were still subject to legal proceedings, he said.

Evans said that the previous conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard believed that locking up asylum seekers on arrival would deter others.

"Labor rejects the notion that dehumanising and punishing unauthorised arrivals with long-term detention is an effective or civilised response," he said.

"Desperate people are not deterred by the threat of harsh detention. They are often fleeing much worse circumstances."

Asylum seekers arriving by boat will still be held at Australia's Christmas Island off the northwest coast but with the aim of resolving their cases in the shortest time possible, he said.

The government has already scrapped the "Pacific Solution" under which boat people were sent to special detention centres in tiny Nauru state or the Papua New Guinea island of Manus.