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Australia signals harder line on asylum seekers following Christmas Island tragedy

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Refugee advocates fear the government will bow to calls to get tough on boat people and reinstate measures introduced by the former conservative government under the controversial "Pacific Solution." Australia already runs one of the toughest asylum seeker programs in the developed world.

“I think we can all be pretty confident that we will now see more restrictive polices introduced,” says Khalid Koser, a nonresident fellow at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank. “Already you can see a lot of talk in the media that this tragedy would not have happened under the Pacific Solution. But a much more comprehensive and long-term package is required to deal with the issue. This is now likely to be pushed aside and the focus will be on tougher measures.”

The "Pacific Solution" was introduced in 2001 by the former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, who set up offshore immigration detention camps. Supporters claim the policy was responsible for a dramatic fall in the number of boat people entering Australian waters. However, it was widely condemned by human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

When Labor took federal power in 2007, the tough political rhetoric on boat people was toned down, visa restrictions on refugees were eased, and a number of off-shore detention facilities were closed with detainees transferred to the mainland. Government critics charge these moves are behind a recent surge in boat people to Australia – this year some 6,232 asylum seekers have arrived by boat compared with 148 in 2007. Refugee advocates maintain the increase has more to do with “push” factors in asylum seekers’ countries of origin.

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