Australia on Friday loosened its highly charged policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers who arrive by boat, freeing 27 from overcrowded, prison-like conditions and estimating more than 100 would be released monthly.
The move was welcomed by human-rights groups. They have strongly criticized the 20-year-old policy as inhumane, though it remains popular among many Australians who regard the increasing boat arrivals as a major political issue.
About 3,800 people seeking to stay in Australia live in detention centers surrounded by razor wire, either waiting for their asylum claims to be assessed or appealing rejections. Children and their mothers are usually accommodated elsewhere.
The 27 men released Friday are Afghans and Sri Lankans who will live on temporary visas with family and friends in Australia while their refugee claims are assessed.
"This is the initial batch of bridging visas," Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told reporters. "We estimate that at least 100 bridging visas will be issued each month."
The number freed and how long the releases will continue will depend on the rate of future arrivals, he said. The department will choose those freed on visas based on the length of their detention, their behavior and the ability of family and friends to house them.
Asylum seekers _ mostly from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq _ have been heading to Australia on rickety boats in greater numbers since August, when the High Court ruled that a government plan to deport hundreds of new arrivals to Malaysia was illegal.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard attempted to salvage the plan but shelved the revised legislation last month when it became clear Parliament would reject it.
The opposition, which opinion polls show is likely to win the next elections in 2013, said the government "has flung the door open to illegal boat arrivals on the eve of the monsoon season, the most dangerous time of year to travel."
"A government who claims to want to provide a deterrent on boat arrivals would never do this," opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said.
Amnesty International and the Australian Human Rights Commission, a government-appointed watchdog, were among the groups welcoming the new policy as a more humane way to treat people seeking protection.
"Australia has been alone among industrialized nations in subjecting asylum seekers who arrive without visas to detention for the entire period taken to determine their refugee status," said Paul Power, chief executive of the Refugee Council of Australia, a nongovernment advocacy group.
The mandatory detention regime has been widely criticized by rights groups as punitive and has been blamed for suicides and psychiatric problems among detainees.