MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Several hundred people rallied in the suburbs of Melbourne on Saturday, after a proposal to house refugees locally drew protest by far right anti-Islam groups and counter protests.
Political debate around Australia's hardline policy toward asylum seekers has been heated recently, with the conservative government last week announcing plans to permanently ban asylum seekers who attempted to reach Australia by boat from permanently entering under any visa category.
Dozens of people belonging to the anti-Islam groups rallied on Saturday against a proposal to house 120 refugees from Syria and Iraq, at a housing facility for elderly citizens in the Melbourne suburb of Eltham.
"They (the elderly citizens) are a bit concerned about it but they will just wait and see," John Conroy a resident of the aged-care facility said.
A heavy police presence separated the group from more than 100 people rallying in favor of the proposal. Previous protests between anti-immigration and pro-immigration groups have led to violent clashes.
Australia's current policy of sending asylum seekers who arrive in Australian waters by boat offshore to Papua New Guinea and Nauru, where their status as refugees is confirmed or rejected, has bipartisan support in the Australian parliament.
Last year the government announced a one-off intake of 12,000 refugees fleeing the conflict in Iraq and Syria, saying that ethnic minorities from those countries would be given priority.
Far right political parties are on the rise in Australia, with the controversial One Nation party surprising many by winning four Senate seats at the country's national elections in July.
(Reporting by Jarni Blakkarly; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)