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Australian stance yet to stem refugee flow

By CNN's Grant Holloway

CANBERRA, Australia (CNN) -- People trafficking networks are continuing to ship boatloads of illegal immigrants towards Australian shores despite the government's hard line of denying asylum seekers landfall, new figures show.

Australia's Department of Immigration told CNN Tuesday more than 1,800 illegal immigrants attempted to enter Australia in September and October this year, four times the amount in the same period a year ago.

Immigration department spokesman Steve Ingram said about 450 of those asylum seekers has been turned back from Australian shores by the Australian Navy, which has increased its patrolling of the nation's northern coastline in recent months.

Australia has taken a tough stance on asylum seekers following an international incident in August this year where a Norwegian freighter which had rescued a boatload of asylum seekers was denied permission to land the human cargo in Australia.

The conservative coalition government of John Howard has also tightened its border protection laws since August, making it nearly impossible for any asylum seeker landing in the remote island outposts of Australia to claim refugee status. Asia
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Instead, the would-be refugees are either turned back to Indonesia waters or transported to detention centers on Pacific nations such as Nauru or Papua New Guinea.

Ingram told CNN the Immigration Department believed there were at least another 900 to 1,000 asylum seekers based in Indonesia who had paid people smugglers for their voyage and were still likely to set sail for Australia despite the crackdown.

However he said the government had reason to believe the people smuggling pipeline "was not being replenished" at the same rates and the tough policy stance would eventually decrease the flow of illegal immigrants.

The Howard government, which goes to the polls for re-election on Saturday, has won considerable domestic support for its approach to asylum seekers but has similarly endured international criticism and damaged an already fragile relationship with its northern neighbor Indonesia.

And in Australia there is also an increasingly vocal minority who disapprove of the Howard position.

"The idea of turning back refugee boats has been a very polarizing and decisive issue in this country," political commentator and author Paul Kelly told CNN.

"While Howard has majority support for it, there is a strong minority that's been particularly virulent in its criticism of the prime minister on this issue, and again the concern is that this is playing to a racial undercurrent in the Australian community," he said.

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