Australia to free some asylum seekers from centers

By ROD McGUIRK | November 25, 2011 | 2:20 AM EST

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The Australian government will free more than 100 asylum seekers a monthfrom overcrowded detention centers that are being overwhelmed by new boat arrivals, an official said Friday.

The release on Friday of the first 27 Afghan and Sri Lankan men to live on temporary visas with family and friends in Australian cities while their refugee claims are assessed has been welcomed by human rights and refugee advocates.

"This is the initial batch of bridging visas," Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told reporters of the 27. "We estimate that at least 100 bridging visas will be issued each month."

Australia's prison-like detention centers now hold 3,800 people who are either waiting for their asylum claims to be assessed or are appealing against rulings rejecting their claims.

Asylum seekers — mostly from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq — have been heading to Australia on rickety-boats in greater numbers since August, when the High Court ruled that a government plan to deport hundreds of new arrivals to Malaysia was illegal.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard attempted to revive the plan by changing the law. But she shelved that legislation last month when it became clear that Parliament would reject it.

Bowen said his department would choose who would be freed on visas based on how long asylum seekers had been in detention, how well they had behaved and the ability of family and friends to house them.

The Australian Human Rights Commission, a government-appointed watchdog, welcomed the new policy as a more humane way to treat people seeking protection.

"We hope to see as many people as possible granted bridging visas and removed from detention as quickly as possible," Commission President Catherine Branson said in a statement.

The Refugee Council of Australia, a nongovernment advocacy group, described the change as an important first step toward ending the suffering of thousands of vulnerable people experiencing extended and needless detention.

"Australia has been alone among industrialized nations in subjecting asylum seekers who arrive without visas to detention for the entire period taken to determine their refugee status," the council's chief executive Paul Power said.

Amnesty International, a London-based rights group, described the release at least 100 asylume seekers a month as a significant victory for refugee rights.

Australia introduced mandatory detention for asylum seekers who arrive by boat almost 20 years ago. However, children and their mothers are usually accommodated outside the razor wire of detention centers.

The mandatory detention regime has been widely criticized by rights groups as punitive and has blamed for suicides and psychiatric problems among detainees. However the regime remains popular among Australians who regard the increasing boat arrivals as a major political issue.