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Australia grapples with policy on asylum seekers

By Chantal Abitbol for CNN
An Afghan migrant seeking a better future in Australia holds his daughter in an interview in Kuala Lumpur on August 18, 2011.
An Afghan migrant seeking a better future in Australia holds his daughter in an interview in Kuala Lumpur on August 18, 2011.
  • In recent years, the number of unauthorized boat people coming to Australia has ballooned
  • The High Court in Australia ruled that the country cannot send asylum seekers to Malaysia
  • Both countries said it was aimed at reducing human smuggling and illegal migration
  • The court says Malaysia is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention

(CNN) -- Abdul Farid Sufizada knew he was in trouble when a Russian-built jeep pulled up to his grocery shop one afternoon in northern Afghanistan. An unknown man jumped out and blindfolded him. He was shoved into the backseat and taken to an underground location where the Taliban had gathered a group of local young men.

"The Taliban have no heart," Sufizada said. "They killed young boys in front of me."

He was held for five days until his father managed to pay a foreman to release him. But after that fateful day in 2001, he knew he had to flee.

At just 23, the father of three left his family behind and traveled to Indonesia, where he paid a people-smuggler to board a rickety fishing boat bound for Australia.

No asylum seekers to Malaysia
Australia's controversial refugee swap

It nearly cost him his life. The overloaded vessel began to sink in international waters about 140 kilometers off the coast of Christmas Island, in Australian territory.

The Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, came to the rescue. But a diplomatic standoff ensued when the Howard government refused to allow the 433 asylum-seekers on board the Tampa to enter Australia.

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the affair. Sufizada, now 33, has since been granted asylum. He is living with his family near Fremantle, Western Australia and works as a painter.

"Australia is my country now," he said.

But 10 years on, the government is still grappling with the issue of how to stem the tide of human smuggling and illegal migration to its shores. In recent years, the number of unauthorized boat people coming to Australia has ballooned. Last year, 6,879 people arrived by boat -- compared to the 449 people that came between 2002 and 2008 combined, according to a parliamentary report.

Meanwhile, Australia's High Court on Wednesday quashed the federal government's latest move to crack down on people-smugglers when it ruled against a people-swap deal that would have seen Australia transfer 800 illegal boat people to Malaysia. In exchange, Australia agreed to take 4,000 U.N. registered refugees living in Malaysia.

"This is a ground-breaking agreement," Prime Minister Julia Gillard said at the time of the deal's announcement last month. "People smugglers prey on the desperation of others, and what they are seeking to sell is the hope of having their claim processed in Australia. This will smash that people smugglers' business model."

The court, however, ultimately ruled the deal to be unlawful after refugee lawyers successfully argued that Australia could not guarantee the refugees' treatment in Malaysia, which is not a signatory of the United Nations refugee convention.

"Let's make no bones about it: it is a significant blow to our efforts," said Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.

Over the years, the government has introduced tough strategies to halt the boats -- from mandatory detention in 1992 to the blocking of the Tampa in 2001.

After the Tampa controversy, then-Prime Minister John Howard introduced the so-called "Pacific solution", which transported asylum-seekers to detention camps on small island nations in the Pacific Ocean -- including Christmas Island, Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, and the tiny island of Nauru. In exchange, the countries received funding and aid from Australia.

The policy was abandoned when the Labor government under Kevin Rudd assumed control in 2007. But in a recent twist, that same government, now under Gillard, appears to be back-stepping.

In August, the government signed a memorandum of understanding with Papua New Guinea to reopen the Manus Island detention center, which was built as part of the failed Pacific solution and closed in 2004 after its sole inmate was granted asylum in Australia.

Under the deal, it is understood that Australia has agreed to provide financial assistance to PNG, but the government has yet to provide specifics.

Humanitarian groups immediately slammed the move. "The Pacific solution was domestically and internationally condemned as an inhumane policy which breached Australia's human rights obligations," said Amnesty International Australia's refugee spokesman Graham Thom.

"Bizarrely, the very same government which dismantled the failed Pacific solution is now reviving it."

Meanwhile, the nation's detention network also appears to be in trouble. A recent parliamentary inquiry highlighted the difficulties inside the nation's 19 centers -- with riots, self-harm and overcrowding on the rise.

Saad Tlaa, 42, has witnessed first hand the despair within detention centers. The Iraqi refugee spent 15 months at Sydney's Villawood detention center after he arrived illegally in Australia in 2009.

During his stay, he witnessed a riot and the suicide death of one of his Iraqi friends.

"The hardest thing is the mental torture," he said. "It's worse than jail [where] at least you know how many years you will serve. But in detention, you are in limbo."

Tlaa's decision to come to Australia was a last resort. After fleeing Iraq shortly before the 1990-91 Gulf War, he ended up in the Philippines and was registered as a bona fide refugee by the U.N. agency for refugees in Manila that same year.

Tlaa entered the Philippines in early 1990 as a student, but then got stranded there due to the Gulf War. According to Tlaa, he was granted political refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1990 after Kuwait was invaded.

But 18 years later, the trained architect was still waiting to be resettled.

Finally, the father of four decided to take matters into his own hands and paid a people-smuggler to arrange a fake passport and flights. He rejects being labeled a "queue jumper."

"Actually, there is no queue. Where is the queue? I waited in the queue for 18 years trying to do it through legal ways, but nothing happened."

In November 2010, Tlaa was eventually granted asylum and now lives in Adelaide. His family is expected to join him next month.

"This was my hope from the start. I just wanted to have a peaceful place for my family."