By James Grubel
CANBERRA (Reuters) - A former Australian prime minister denounced offshore refugee detention camps as Soviet-style "Gulags" on Thursday and the opposition proposed empowering the military to stop boats of asylum seekers days before a national election is to be called.
Malcolm Fraser, conservative prime minister from late 1975 until 1983, said sending asylum seekers to detention in Papua New Guinea and Nauru would not stop refugee boats arriving from Indonesia.
"I do not believe you need the brutality of the policy of deterrent," Fraser said.
Speaking of proposed detention centers in the two South Pacific countries, he later told Reuters: "They're reminiscent of Soviet-style Gulags."
That was a reference to the network of harsh forced labor camps operated by the defunct Soviet Union.
Under Fraser's leadership, Australia took in around 140,000 refugees from Vietnam, including around 2,000 who arrived by boat.
With an election likely to be held in August or September, both the ruling Labor Party and the Conservative-led opposition party are vying to produce tough fixes to a thorny issue amid reports of abuse and rape at one offshore center.
Around 15,000 asylum seekers have arrived by boat in Australia this year, prompting Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to announce a deal last week to send all boat arrivals to detention in Papua New Guinea for processing and eventual settlement if they are found to be refugees.
The announcement coincided with a riot at the Nauru detention center in which accommodation blocks were set ablaze and staff and inmates were injured. More than 100 detainees were arrested by Nauruan police and remain in jail awaiting charges.
Meanwhile, a former guard from G4S, the private company that runs the Manus Island center in Papua New Guinea, told Australian television this week that staff had turned a blind eye to rapes and assaults at the facility.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) this month found major shortcomings with the Manus center, with cramped living quarters and asylum seekers reporting issues with the heat, privacy, hygiene and access to medical services.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott, the election favorite, upped the ante on Thursday, saying he would appoint a military commander to take charge of "operation sovereign borders", displacing the government Home Affairs agency.
Since 2001, about 1,000 people have died while trying to reach Australia's Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island aboard unseaworthy boats.
But Australia's intake of refugees is tiny compared to North America and Europe -- last year there were 16,000 asylum seeker applications for Australia, compared to 91,000 for the United States and Canada.
The issue remains critical, particularly in key districts in western Sydney, as surveys show voters favor the opposition's policies. Rudd is expected to call the election any day. The poll must be held by November.
Abbott said on Thursday the boats represented a "national emergency" on Australia's borders.
"This is one of the most serious external situations that we have faced in many a long year. That's why it must be tackled with decisiveness, with urgency, with the appropriate level of seriousness," Abbott said, adding it was crucial for a military officer to have operational control of the issue.
(editing by Jane Wardell and Ron Popeski)