CANBERRA Australia has suspended processing new claims for asylum from Afghans and Sri Lankans as the government seeks to defuse an election-year row on immigration.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's government, due to seek a second term from voters late in 2010, is under pressure to halt the arrival of boatpeople off the country's remote northwest coast which has stoked public concern about border security laws.
The conservative oppositions are promising to bring back tougher border laws, if they win the 2010 election, possibly threatening Rudd's strong popularity in a country where voters are typically fractured over immigration.
"We have taken a consistently hardline approach to people smuggling and today's announcements will further strengthen the integrity of Australia's immigration system," Immigration Minister Chris Evans told reporters on Friday.
Evans said new applications from Sri Lanka will be suspended for three months, while those from Afghanistan will be suspended for six months, citing improving security in those countries.
Asylum seekers from either country are the main source of boatpeople arriving in Australia.
The Australian Greens party rejected the suspensions as "totally inhumane."
"We have what is Kevin Rudd's redneck solution in the lead-up to the election campaign. We are in very dangerous water," Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young told reporters.
Rudd, riding high in opinion polls, is expected to win a second three-year term from voters, but his popularity has wobbled lately amid controversies over health and education, climate change policies and border security.
The new policy was announced as a sinking boat with 70 people was intercepted by the Australian navy south of Indonesia near Christmas Island, home to an Australian detention center.
The vessel was the 38th to arrive in Australian waters this year in an influx threatening to spark a re-run of the racially-tinged 2001 election, which was fought largely over immigration and border security and unexpectedly won by then-ruling conservative prime minister John Howard.
Rudd has been accused of being soft on border protection after dismantling Howard's hardline policies since his victory in 2007, and speeding refugee processing times.
In a little over three months this year, 1,878 immigrants and 96 crew have arrived by boat in a surge that if it continues, will make 2010 will be the biggest year yet for unauthorized arrivals on record, exceeding the 5,000 who arrived in 2001.
Last year, 2,706 asylum seekers and 115 crew made it to Australia in the first full year of the Rudd government's new immigration policies, up from 142 in 2008.
Evans said he did not expect the suspensions would immediately stem boat arrivals, but said he was hopeful that "over time" it would have an impact on regional people smuggling operations behind Australia's recent influx.
(Editing by Michael Perry)