Australia says freeze on Lankan asylum seekers legal

Says situation improving
By Madeleine Coorey

SYDNEY, April 10 (AFP) - Australia today defended its decision to temporarily stop processing asylum-seekers from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, saying its approach was legal and non-discriminatory.
Australia's human rights watchdog and refugee supporters had questioned Canberra's move to immediately stop taking new applications from asylum-seekers from those two countries, saying it could be unfair to Afghans and Sri Lankans.

"We have very strong legal advice that the suspension is within all the legal requirements in this country," Immigration Minister Chris Evans said.

Evans said the new policy -- which means asylum-seekers arriving from Sri Lanka will be unable to apply for a visa for three months and those from Afghanistan for six months -- was not discriminatory.
"They are not losing any rights, they will still have their rights... honoured," he told reporters.
The government has said the changes have been introduced because of the improving situations in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, and comply with Australia's international obligations to refugees.

The minister said the new policy, which comes as the number of boats carrying asylum-seekers being intercepted by Australian border control officers is rising, was in the country's best interests.
"There's some criticism been made that somehow because conditions in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan may be difficult, therefore people will be found to be refugees. That is a nonsense," Evans said.

"The requirements of the refugees convention are that people face a real fear of persecution, not that they come from a country where circumstances are difficult.

"We do not accept that... everyone who comes here is a refugee."Canberra also wants to crack down on people-smugglers who bring asylum-seekers into Australian waters, often on ill-equipped wooden boats.

The announcement created concern among rights and refugee groups, with Australia's Human Rights Commission saying there was a risk the policy would discriminate against people based on their nationality.

"The Australian Human Rights Commission is fearful that it will lead to breaches of Australia's international human rights obligation, in particular our obligation under the refugees convention not to treat groups of people differently based on their country of origin," president Cathy Branson said.

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