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Immigration: Federal Cabinet to consider clarifying definition of `refugee status' as Australia faces increasing numbers applying for political asylum and refugee status

PETER THOMPSON: Now to immigration, and the confusion and publicity generated by the Prime Minister's announcement of a special category for Chinese students in Australia has concealed another no less difficult decision about refugees. Next week Federal Cabinet has more to decide than whether to give four years temporary residence to those Chinese students who were in Australia prior to June 20 last year. It will also be asked to endorse legislation to clarify the definition of a refugee in an effort to deal with an explosion in the number of people seeking asylum in Australia. Warwick Beutler reports that in line with trends overseas, there's been a five-fold increase in the number of people already in Australia who have sought refugee status in the last 12 months.

WARWICK BEUTLER: Despite the huffing and puffing from the Prime Minister and his Foreign Minister, there's only a very slim chance that the 200 Cambodian boat people now being detained near Darwin will ever be returned. First, the Cambodian Government will accept only those who agree to be repatriated; and second, it's almost certain they'd win the right to permanent residence in Australia under more generous recent interpretations by the courts of what constitutes refugee status. Indeed, Mr Hawke's comments about Australia not automatically accepting people who pay their way out of Indo-China could well be regarded as a denial of natural justice to the Cambodians.

But the status of the Cambodians illustrates, in a small way, what is already a huge problem in other Western countries with good humanitarian credentials, and it's rapidly becoming a serious problem in Australia, too. It's the question of how to deal with the explosion in the number of people who arrive in Australia on short term visas, then apply for refugee status. In 1980 only 200 people in Australia applied; by last financial year the number had grown to 560.

But in the 11 months to May the figure totalled more than 3,000 - a five-fold increase. Many of these people were students from China, but there were also very significant numbers from Fiji, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and countries such as Somalia. It's a trend which has been repeated in Canada, the United States and Europe, where new procedures have been adopted to try to rein in the number of people seeking asylum. By and large, though, these measures have not been successful, with the US alone expecting 100,000 applicants this year.

For the Australian Government, the flood of applicants has been exacerbated by the adoption by the courts of a far less restrictive interpretation of what constitutes refugee status. For example, a case decided by the High Court last September, meant that Australia had to give protection to people who could show that they might possibly suffer persecution should they return to their homeland. What's more, a Federal Court decision in February this year effectively required the Government to accept a refugee claim if it was based on a fear of persecution, unless the Government was able to refute the claim.

These court decisions have enormous implications. Clearly, they could mean that the 20,000 Chinese students who came to Australia after - not before, after - last year's massacre in Beijing, they would qualify as refugees, and the court decisions would make it nearly impossible for the Cambodians now in Darwin to be repatriated. The Government is worried about the asylum issue, not only because of the numbers and the looser interpretation of what is a refugee, but because the increase in applicants in Australia means those people sitting in refugee camps in South East Asia, for example, will have to wait even longer to get to Australia. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is so worried that he recently expressed concern that Western nations might not maintain their contributions to looking after refugees at source - in other words in the camps in South East Asia.

As part of his submission to Cabinet next week, the Immigration Minister, Gerry Hand, will present a package of reforms aimed at dealing with the flood of applications within Australia for refugee status. The Minister won't reveal his plans, but they're expected to include legislation to clarify Australia's domestic law on the definition of a refugee. He's also likely to ask for extra resources. Mr Hand is expected to stress that Australia still wants to play its part in granting people asylum on humanitarian and refugee grounds, but it should be done in an orderly way, without people jumping queues and without exploiting loopholes.

PETER THOMPSON: Warwick Beutler in Canberra.