Australia shrinks from boat people

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The Independent Online

Australia is considering the drastic step of changing the legal status of Tasmania, the island state south of the mainland, to prevent boat people from landing there and claiming asylum.

Australia is considering the drastic step of changing the legal status of Tasmania, the island state south of the mainland, to prevent boat people from landing there and claiming asylum.

Last weekend, with the stroke of a pen, the government excised thousands of tiny islands off Australia's north coast from the country's migration zone. The move, which means people who reach the islands can no longer claim refugee status, was taken after ministers received intelligence about boatloads of asylum-seekers heading to Australia from Indonesia.

None has tried to reach Australia in the past six months, and the government is signalling it will take whatever measures are necessary – including lopping off bits of the country ad hoc – to keep out illegal immigrants.

Philip Ruddock, the Immigration Minister, said Tasmania could be removed from the migration zone. "If there is creditable information that there have been changes in the modus operandi of the smugglers, we are keeping our options open," he said. "We have taken decisions in relation to the areas we think are appropriate to excise from the migration zone. If there are changed circumstances, we will look at that."

Last year, as part of its crackdown on asylum-seekers from Afghanistan and the Middle East, the government changed the status of Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef, far-flung territories in the Indian Ocean that were popular drop-off points for people-smugglers. The move meant they no longer counted as Australia proper for immigration purposes.

The so-called Pacific solution, which involved diverting boat people bound for Australia to Pacific islands to be processed, appears to be unravelling. Rene Harris, the President of Nauru, which accepted more than 1,000 asylum-seekers, accused Australia of breaking a 30 May deadline for processing them. The Pacific solution, he said, had become "a Pacific nightmare for us".

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