Boat People Put Spotlight on Refugee Row

According to Chris Lom, a spokesman for the International Organization of Migration (IOM) in Geneva, some Afghan refugees in Pakistan who are in a position to afford airfares, fly to countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and in recent months, Cambodia, from where human cargo smugglers offer to take them — for a price — to Australia.

Losing Sympathy

But while Australia, a country built on immigration, has never refused access to boat people arriving at its shores, the increasing numbers of illegal immigrants seeking sanctuary on the island nation has led to a growing unease about the country's immigration policy.

Although Australia accepts about 10,000 refugees a year under formal United Nations programs, an estimated 3,700 illegal immigrants arrived in Australia this year aboard rickety vessels manned by Indonesian fishermen keen to earn extra cash.

Over the past decade, an estimated 13,000 unauthorized boat people, mostly from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and other Middle East countries, reached Australian shores. Hundreds are believed to have drowned on the way.

In recent months, Australia has come under heavy criticism from human rights groups for the conditions at several detention centers for illegal immigrants.

Last year, mass protests broke out at three detention centers in western Australia following reports of attempted suicides among detainees awaiting processing of their asylum applications, often in physically harsh conditions.

"Refugees in these detention centers wait long periods, running into months, to be granted interviews with Australian authorities who then determine their status," said Mutuli. "This raises questions of the manner in which the Australian government treats people in these camps."

But as Australians head for the polls later this year, opinion polls show that a vast majority of the Australian population has grown impatient with the country's liberal immigration policy. A recent poll for Channel Nine's Sunday program showed 78 percent public support for the government's hardline stance.

Given the mood of the electorate, the fate of the 438 refugees on board the Tampa looks increasingly bleak.

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