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By Bob Burton

CANBERRA, Australia (October 3, 2001 - IPS/PINA Nius Online)---The government of Australian Prime Minister John Howard, its standing boosted by its tough handling of asylum seekers ahead of elections due next month, has been tapping into the unease many here feel on the issue of immigration.

While Howard's get-tough policy over the last month -- and shipping asylum seekers to a Nauru detention camp -- annoys the United Nations and local activists, it plays well domestically.

It attracts strong support from anti-immigration supporters of the right-wing One Nation Party and the conservative working class supporters of the Opposition Labor Party.

Still, Howard, who is likely to call an election in the next few days for November 10, desperately wants to end the stand-off over the shipload of more than 444 asylum seekers who reached Australian territory last month – and avoid further embarrassment during the election campaign.

[See update: Empty Manoora May Help Us]

In desperation at the 10-day stand-off over the offloading of the asylum seekers at the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru -- where the vessel carrying them were shunted off by Australia -- Canberra began defying the instructions of the Nauruan government that it would only accept those who left the ship voluntarily.

Canberra began forcibly removing asylum seekers from an Australian Navy ship moored off Nauru, prompting the government of that tiny Pacific nation to temporarily suspend accepting any further asylum seekers.

''That is a situation that we do not feel happy with. We would only accept those that get off voluntarily,'' the chief secretary of Nauru, Mathew Batsiua, said.

On Monday, a dozen asylum seekers were marched off a landing craft onto a mini-bus to take them to the detention center. ''We are refugees, not criminals,'' one Iraqi man shorted from on board the bus. ''They forced us, they hit us,'' he shouted to journalists.

While some left the bus, others refused to budge and stayed in the bus throughout the night, before finally moving to the detention camp on Tuesday morning.

Australia's actions led to the United Nations announcing that it would not agree to process another 262 asylum seekers currently aboard another Australian Navy ship heading for Nauru.

Reports said that there was pushing and shoving as the asylum seekers, who wanted to be brought to the Australian mainland, were forced off the Australian ship.

Rejecting the asylum seekers' call, Howard said they ''cannot illegally present themselves'' on the mainland. ''Now there is no way that having gone through everything that we have gone through, we are now going to say, 'oh well now you can come to Australia after all','' Howard added.

Howard's strategy has been to campaign strongly on the immigration issue, and plug into the growing discomfort some here feel about increasing number of immigrants.

While one-third of Australians were born overseas or born of parents who were born on foreign soil, taking a tough line on asylum seekers -- tagged by the government as 'queue jumpers' -- resonate with some recent immigrants who patiently waited for their formal applications for immigration to be processed.

Since the Australian government dramatically prevented the captain of the Norwegian ship Tampa from landing the 433 asylum seekers on Christmas Island, Howard's electoral standing has soared.

The latest opinion polls reveal the likelihood that Howard, who only months ago looked set for defeat, is now likely to win comfortably.

The Opposition Labor Party at first opposed some of the government's moves, but after experiencing a backlash has lamely fallen in behind Howard.

Commenting on the unloading of asylum seekers from the Australian ship, opposition leader Kim Beazley said: ''Nobody is entitled to be on an Australian naval ship if the Australian Navy does not want you on it.''

On a popular and influential talkback radio, many of the calls have been venomous. ''Send them away and shoot them,'' said one caller from the industrial Illawarra region. ''Australia has had a gutful of all illegal immigrants,'' said another.

Even the chat forums on the more moderate public radio have attracted their fair share of people hostile to the asylum seekers. ''All this pussyfooting around with the illegals has to stop. What right do these people have to demand to be taken to Australia? They lost their rights when they entered our waters illegally,'' wrote one.

Another demanded more dramatic action. ''The leaders of the group should be isolated immediately, restrained with appropriate injections and the rest ushered off immediately onto Nauru with restrictions,'' wrote another.

Bolstered by its meteoric rise in the polls, the Howard government last week passed six separate amendments to Australia's migration legislation to dramatically restrict the rights of asylum seekers.

One of the approved amendments allows for ships with asylum seekers aboard to be towed back into international waters, and asylum seekers to be transferred to quasi-prison centers on Nauru and other islands.

Another amendment excluded the most common landing sites of Ashmore Reef, Christmas Island and Cocos Island from Australian migration legislation. This means that asylum seekers who land there would be ineligible to apply for permanent residency.

Even pleas from the government's own Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) for a delay in passing the legislation were dismissed.

''I am concerned that a restrictive refugee definition proposed in this bill will endanger people genuinely at risk of persecution,'' said commission president Professor Alice Tay.

The spokesman for the Refugee Council of Australia, Professor William Maley, views the amendments as ''repressive and abominable legislation.''

''It is disturbing that the baying of uninformed opinion has so intimidated the major parties that they are prepared to pursue this particular course,'' Maley said.

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees spokeswoman, Ellen Hansen, has also offered muted criticism of the legislation. ''This sort of legislation sets a precedent for other countries who perhaps do not have the traditionally high standards that Australia has,'' she said.

''It is very difficult to have countries like Pakistan and Iran keep their borders open to refugees when this is becoming increasingly difficult to do in a country like Australia, which faces far fewer numbers and fewer problems,'' she told the media.

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