Australia election: Tony Abbott proposes tough asylum measures

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Media captionThe BBC's Jon Donnison says both candidates are keen to look tough on asylum and immigration

Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott has unveiled more tough asylum plans, three weeks from the election.

Mr Abbott has already said that if elected, he would appoint a military commander to lead operations tackling people smugglers and asylum boats.

Friday's initiatives relate to some 30,000 people who arrived by boat but whose claims have not been assessed.

If found to be refugees, they would not be granted residency but limited to temporary visas, Mr Abbott said.

These temporary protection visas, valid for up to three years, would be assessed on renewal - at which point protection could be revoked if refugee status was no longer applicable.

Those on temporary visas would be required to work for welfare benefits. People denied refugee status would not be allowed to appeal against the decision.

"This is our country and we determine who comes here," Mr Abbott said. "That was the position under the last Coalition government, that will be the position under any future Coalition government."

Asylum is a sensitive issue in Australia, despite the relatively small numbers involved. UNHCR's Asylum Trends 2012 report said Australia received only 3% of global asylum applications in 2012.

'Cruelty and punishment'

Australia goes to the polls on 7 September. According to the latest opinion poll, Mr Abbott's Liberal-National coalition has a four-point lead over the ruling Labor Party, led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Asylum is set to be a significant election issue, after a sharp rise in the number of people arriving by boat in recent months. Several boats have sunk, killing passengers - the majority of whom come from Sri Lanka, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, via Indonesia.

Last month, Mr Rudd unveiled a plan to send boat arrivals to Papua New Guinea, where those found to be genuine refugees would be resettled.

The UN has described this policy - apparently aimed as a deterrent - as "troubling", saying it faced "significant policy, legal and operational challenges". Labor says, however, that there is already evidence it is working.

An opposition spokesman acknowledged that removing failed asylum-seekers' access to an appeals process could be subject to a legal challenge.

"There are many legal issues we have to work through and they are most appropriately worked through with the appropriate and full resources of government," said opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, meanwhile, condemned the opposition's policy.

"We know the impact of temporary protection visas are severe on the livelihoods of genuine refugees, vulnerable people who have fled war, torture and persecution," she said.

"This is just cruelty and punishment for the sake of Tony Abbott looking tough, tougher than Kevin Rudd in the race to the bottom."