Australia set to send boatpeople offshore

Australia's parliament Tuesday neared agreement to transfer boatpeople seeking asylum to Pacific states, with Prime Minister Julia Gillard saying they could be processed offshore within a month.

Canberra has struggled to stem an influx of boatpeople who make the dangerous sea voyage to Australia, and on Monday said it would move to handle their refugee claims offshore to deter them from making the journey.

"Within a month we would hope to see people processed on Nauru and Papua New Guinea," Gillard said, adding that she had spoken to the leaders of both nations and they responded positively to the idea.

The government hopes that offshore processing will make asylum-seekers think twice about paying people-smugglers to bring them to Australia, knowing they could spend years waiting on a Pacific island before being resettled.

Parliament began discussing the amended laws aimed at reinstating offshore processing -- a practice abandoned by the Labor party when it won power in 2007.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the changes had been agreed with the conservative opposition, meaning they were expected to pass.

It follows an independent report by former defence force chief Angus Houston released on Monday that recommended reopening the shuttered camps used under the so-called "Pacific Solution" of former conservative leader John Howard.

Under the controversial scheme, boatpeople were processed on PNG's Manus Island or tiny Nauru in Australian-funded detention centres but many languished on these remote outposts for years.

Gillard said that an advance team of Australians could be in PNG and Nauru as early as Friday to assess facilities, and that temporary structures such as tents could be used initially until the run-down centres were again usable.

She could not say how long boatpeople would remain offshore, but said the Houston report recommended that those who arrived by boat should not be processed any quicker than those waiting their turn at refugee camps elsewhere.

Rick Towle, regional representative the UN's refugee agency, said this raised concerns.

"We would be concerned if people on Nauru and Papua New Guinea are subjected to the same prolonged delays in finding solutions as the many tens of thousands of people in Southeast Asia face today," he told the ABC.

Tony Abbott, who leads the conservative opposition that has long-supported reopening Nauru as an offshore processing centre, welcomed Gillard's "last-minute conversion to common sense", but said it came too late.

"While the prime minister's stubbornness has been preventing real solutions from being put in place we've had 22,000 boatpeople, we've had almost 400 boats and we've had terrible cost, terrible trauma, terrible tragedy," he said.

The number of boatpeople coming to Australia this year has reached more than 7,500, an all-time high, and the government acknowledges that not all boats successfully complete the journey, with hundreds drowning en route since 2001.

More than 600 Australia-bound asylum-seekers have perished at sea since October 2009 and the government said Tuesday it had grave fears for another 67.

Customs are investigating reports that a boat left Indonesia, a main transit hub for boatpeople fleeing Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka, in late June but has not been heard from since.

Australian authorities said they intercepted Tuesday a boat carrying 71 suspected asylum seekers off the West Australian coast.

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