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War of words heats up in refugee row

CANBERRA, Australia (CNN) -- Indonesia has accused Australia of using its northern neighbour as a scapegoat in the wrangle over the plight of hundreds of Afghan illegal immigrants.

Indonesian Defense Minister Matori Abdul Djalil reacted angrily to Australian claims Indonesia was responsible for the crisis being drawn out, saying Australian Prime Minister John Howard was pandering to populist opinion in the lead-up to a federal election.

The tough stance adopted by Australian Prime Minister John Howard on would-be asylum-seekers has paid big political dividends ahead of national elections tipped for later this year.

Howard's refusal to allow a boatload of 433 asylum-seekers -- rescued by the Norwegian cargo ship Tampa nine days ago -- to land on Australian shores has won overwhelming public support and provided a handy fillip for his ruling coalition government.

Refugee crisis sparks some soul-searching Australia

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"Their diplomacy failed and (they held) Indonesia responsible. In fact, we aren't the one who is responsible," Matori told the reporters Tuesday.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda said that the issue was "an international problem", adding that he prefered to talk in private.

"What we don't like is to have a public debate," the minister said in an Australian televison interview.

Opinion polling soars

The Australian government has insisted that the asylum-seekers -- believed to be primarily of Afghan origin -- be transferred to other Pacific nations to have their refugee status assessed. This transfer process is now underway.

An ACNielsen poll held at the weekend found 77 per cent agreed with the Australian government's decision to refuse the asylum seekers entry and 74 percent approved of Howard's handling of the stand-off.

That poll showed Howard's approval rating had jumped 11 points to 57 per cent, his highest since December 1999.

A national election held now would be a close run thing with the coalition and the main opposition, the Australian Labor Party, running neck and neck in the popularity stakes.

The polls reflect a sharp turnaround in sentiment for the Howard government which six months ago was languishing in public sentiment.

Dissatisfaction with a new tax system, higher prices for petrol and the deregulation of rural industries were weighing heavily on the coalition's chances of re-election.

However, a series of policy backdowns and the illegal immigrants issue has restored the government's fortunes.

People smuggling arrests

While Christmas Island's refugee standoff has ended, a new ordeal is just beginning for four Indonesian crewmen left behind.

They now face up to 20 years in an Australian jail and fines of up to US$ 116,000 for attempting to smuggle hundreds of asylum seekers into Australia aboard the KM Palapa.

Aged between 17 and 35, the crewmen nodded silently as they heard the charges at Christmas Island's court.

The judge formally rejected bail, opting to transfer the case to Perth where the defendants would be provided with support groups and legal counsel.

Generous refugee quota

Chairman of the Community Relations Commission in New South Wales Stepan Kerkyasharian told CNN on Tuesday that public support for the government's stance was not a repudiation of Australia's multicultural society and immigration policies.

"These polls simply reflect support for the government's position that it has to protect the integrity of its borders and conduct an orderly immigration policy," he said.

"It is no way a rejection of the multicultural, multi-faith society of Australia."

Kerkyasharian said the latest illegal immigrants issue and public support for the tough stance was unlikely to affect Australian policies on immigration and refugee policies down the track.

"Immigration rules are more to do with economic realities rather than the outcome of this issue," he said.

Australia has one of the most multi-cultural societies in the world having taken in almost 5.7 million immigrants since 1945. About one-quarter of Australia's 19 million population were born overseas.

The country also has, according to the government, the second most generous refugee quota per capita in the world.

It is against this backdrop that Australians have bristled against international criticism of the Howard Government's handling of the Tampa situation and accusations of inhumane treatment of asylum-seekers.

Such attacks have most likely served to bolster support for Howard who has been seen to stand up strongly for Australia's right to defend its borders.

'Unnecessarily divisive'

Senator Natasha Stott Despoja had earlier described the prime minister's solution to the Tampa issue as "another embarrassment for Australia and a waste of taxpayer's money''.

"The fact that the Australian government is paying to shift around 300 people who are already in Australia all the way to Nauru, just to assess their claims for asylum, shows what absurd lengths the prime minister is prepared to go to," she said.

Greens Senator Dr Bob Brown said threats would not change his view.

"I think the specter that has been fostered of an imminent invasion of Australia, which is totally spurious, has been really damaging to a proper debate," Brown told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio on Tuesday.

"It has certainly damaged Australia's image and I think it has been unnecessarily divisive within the country."

The potential for further divisiveness remains however, with a Federal Court still to decide on whether the asylum-seekers should actually be brough to Australia to have their refugee status determined.

A decision on the case, brought by the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties, will be made Wednesday or Thursday.

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