CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The Australian opposition pledged Saturday to slash the amount of money the government spends on legal assistance for asylum seekers if it wins national elections next week.
The soaring costs for taxpayers of an increasing number of asylum seekers reaching Australian shores by boat is a hot-button issue ahead of the elections on Sept. 7.
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison announced Saturday that he expects savings of 100 million Australian dollars ($89 million) over four years by scrapping a government policy of providing free lawyers and migration agents to advise refugee seekers on lodging asylum claims and appealing rejections of the claims.
"There is no provision under the (United Nations) Refugee Convention which compels a country such as Australia to provide taxpayer-funded advice in these situations," Morrison said.
Another opposition spokesman, George Brandis, said a conservative government would give priority to providing Australian citizens with free legal advice rather than asylum seekers.
Sarah Hanson-Young, immigration spokeswoman for the minor Greens party, said the aid is needed because many refugee claims denied by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) were overturned on appeal.
"It's clear that DIAC assessors make mistakes in their first assessments and if the coalition's cruel cuts get up then we may be sending people back to their deaths," she said in a statement.
The conservative opposition, which is tipped to win the election, and the center-left Labor Party government are proposing different policies to stop the influx of boats.
The opposition last week promised to buy old Indonesian fishing boats in a bid to prevent them from falling into the hands of people smugglers. The smugglers charge up to $10,000 per passenger to bring asylum seekers from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Vietnam from Indonesian ports to Australia.
Morrison won't say how many boats a conservative government would buy or how much would be paid.
But with an estimated 750,000 fishing boats in the Indonesian archipelago, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd dismissed the boat-buying scheme as a waste of money.
Rudd has pledged that every refugee who has arrived by boat in Australian waters since July 19 will be resettled on the impoverished Pacific island nations of Papua New Guinea or Nauru.
The opposition has said it would attempt to deter new arrivals by introducing temporary protection visas which would allow refugees to be sent back to their homelands years later if circumstances improve.
Rights groups have criticized both sides of political grandstanding for toughening their policies toward asylum seekers.