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Sagging in polls, Australia's government toughens stance on asylum seekers

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After Kevin Rudd became prime minister in 2007, he abolished some of Mr. Howard’s more controversial measures, such as sending asylum seekers to the Pacific nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea for processing, and granting refugees five-year rather than permanent visas.

However, as part of an immigration policy that Mr. Rudd has called “tough but compassionate,” his government continued the practice of preventing “boat people” from setting foot on the mainland. Christmas Island, where a detention center was built after the Tampa incident, became the centerpiece of that policy, with all “illegal” arrivals taken to the remote, tropical territory for processing.

Designed to accommodate at most 800 people, the center currently holds about 2,000, with the excess housed in prefabricated huts and air-conditioned tents. The government has been forced to fly some detainees to the mainland, where it recently reopened a Howard-era facility in Western Australia.

That action has provoked more criticism from human rights groups and refugee advocates, who claim that the isolated Curtin center – the site of riots and suicide attempts in the past – is unsuitable for its purpose. Zachary Steel, a clinical psychologist and senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales, described it recently as “a psychiatric catastrophe.”

Dr. Steel, who carried out a mental health study at the center, uncovered a tenfold increase in psychiatric disorders among children.

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