Australia on Thursday denied its policies to combat people-smuggling had failed as a decision to release asylum-seekers into the community with little help or support was blasted as “a new low”.
Canberra is struggling with a record influx of asylum-seekers that is overwhelming its offshore camps.
More than 7,500 have arrived since the Labor government launched a harsh new offshore processing policy for boatpeople in August, swamping capacity in Pacific camps on Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
To resolve the impasse Immigration Minister Chris Bowen announced on Wednesday that some asylum-seekers would be released into the community on severely restricted visas that would still apply even if they gained refugee status.
The temporary visas deny them family reunion, ban them from working, and offer scant financial support, prompting warnings of a new “underclass” in Australia living below the poverty line with few rights.
It is part of a “no advantage” approach by the government to ensure that those who pay people-smugglers get no greater benefits than those who wait years for resettlement in United Nations camps.
“I don’t want people to come here and starve,” said Senator Doug Cameron, an opponent to the plan from within the ruling Labor party.
“If you have a situation where people are thrown into the community having to rely on charity then you are creating an underclass in this society.”
Human rights groups have criticised the approach as “extreme” and “cruel”, while the conservative opposition declared the policy a failure and said the government had lost control of Australia’s borders.
Bowen said he did not accept “one little bit” that the policy was a flop.
“We’re dealing with a challenge here,” the minister told ABC radio.
“We have implemented offshore processing. We have always said that this was a complex problem which would take time to fix.”
The Australian Council of Social Service condemned temporary visas as a “new low” in the treatment of refugees and described it as a “a clear abdication of our moral, humanitarian and international legal obligations”.
“Leaving people found to be refugees on bridging visas indefinitely with no right to work and only basic accommodation assistance and limited financial support is completely unnecessary and immeasurably cruel,” said ACOSS chief Cassandra Goldie.
“We know the result of this policy in the past where asylum-seekers were left to live in appalling poverty, with chronic health issues and completely forgotten in detention for many years.”
The Refugee Council of Australia also voiced “grave concern”.
“Our member agencies, already under enormous strain to provide basic support and emergency care for asylum-seekers and refugees on bridging visas, will be stretched to near breaking point,” said chief executive Paul Power.
Bowen conceded there was a “challenge in terms of the arrivals” but said the alternative to bridging visas was “extending offshore processing massively”, which was impractical on tiny Nauru and Manus Island in PNG.
He said there had been a “big increase” in Sri Lankan arrivals in particular and noted that 466 had been forcibly deported since August, with another 104 opting to return home instead of being held offshore.