Australia denied yesterday its policies to combat people smuggling have failed as a decision to release asylum seekers into the community with little help or support was called "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 gain refugee status.
The temporary visas will ban them from working, while offering scant financial support or rights to family reunion.
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.
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 "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 the council's chief, Dr Cassandra Goldie. "We know the result of this policy in the past where asylum seekers were left to live in … poverty, with chronic health issues and completely forgotten in detention for many years."
The Refugee Council of Australia also voiced 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 "extending offshore processing massively" was impractical on tiny Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.