Sri Lankan, Afghan asylum visas suspended

Australia will stop processing visas for Afghan, Sri Lankan asylum seekers, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said.

The federal government has toughened its policy on asylum seekers by immediately suspending the processing of all new refugee claims by Sri Lankans and Afghanis.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans denied the new regime meant asylum seekers could be detained indefinitely on Christmas Island or in mainland detention centres.

"People aren't being denied their right to seek asylum but it's been suspended," he told reporters in Canberra.

"It's humane because people will still have access to consideration of their refugee status.

"They will still be treated with dignity and treated as human beings."

The government says the new policy is a response to changing circumstances in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is presently reviewing conditions in both countries and UN protection guidelines.

The suspension will initially apply for three months for Sri Lankans and six months for Afghanis.

But there's no guarantee the processing ban won't be extended.

"They (asylum seekers) will be detained and if they chose to pursue their claim they will have to wait (three or) six months before we review the suspension," Senator Evans said. "If the suspension is then ended we would process their claim."

The government also announced new measures to combat the financing of people smuggling.

Those supporting operations will face 10 years jail and fines of up to $110,000. Since altering the previous Howard government's asylum seeker policy, Labor has denied "pull factors" were responsible for the recent influx of boat arrivals.

Rather, it maintained "push factors" in source countries were to blame. But Senator Evans said Labor's tougher stance would reduce people smuggling.

"The message is the circumstances in Australia have changed and increasingly persons from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan are being refused asylum in this country," he said

. "I don't think it will have an immediate effect on boats ... (but) we're hopeful over time this will have an impact on people smuggling operations." Senator Evans denied he was pre-empting the UN review.

Asylum seekers caught by the processing ban will still be taken to Christmas Island for health, security and identity checks. But they could then be flown to the mainland.

"The reality is we have pressure on Christmas Island," Senator Evans said.

"Depending on the numbers of arrivals we would obviously, as we've said for months, use other mainland detention facilities."

Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor admitted additional Australian Federal Police officers had been flown to Christmas Island for security.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said a number of other countries had already stopped processing asylum claims from Sri Lanka.

"(But) in the case of Afghanistan we may well be the first country to affect a pause or suspension," he told reporters.

The change in policy was announced as it was revealed 70 asylum seekers were rescued from their floundering vessel near Christmas Island on Friday morning.

The new regime was introduced a day after an opinion poll showed 64 per cent of Australians believe asylum seekers arriving by sea should be returned and made to apply "through normal refugee channels".

Source AAP

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