SYDNEY - Australia's conservative government on Friday further tightened immigration laws to stop arrivals by sea but pledged to increase the overall refugee intake by 7,500 and free hundreds of children detained offshore.
The amendments to the Migration Act which see a return to controversial "temporary protection visas" passed through the lower house Friday morning after a late-night cliff-hanger debate in the upper house Senate.
"This is a win for Australia," Prime Minister Tony Abbott said.
He confirmed several hundred children will be among 1,500 people released from detention centres and placed in the mainland community.
"We always said that three things were necessary to stop the boats - offshore processing, turning boats around and temporary protection visas and last night the final piece of policy was put in place." The temporary protection visas grant refugees protection in Australia for three years but do not allow them to settle for good.
"This will enable the government to deal with the backlog of 30,000 people who came to Australia illegally by boat under Labor," Abbott told a press conference, referring to the previous government.
"These people, if they're found to be refugees, will receive temporary protection visas which means that no one coming to Australia illegally by boat can expect to get permanent residency." Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said the official quota of refugees allowed into Australia would now go up to 18,750 a year.
"We have got stronger borders at sea because of the powers we've given our maritime agency," he told reporters.
The legislation reflects the hardening attitudes Australian governments have taken against asylum-seekers attempting to enter the country on unauthorised boats.
Only one boat has reached the Australian mainland since December, compared to almost daily arrivals previously under the Labor administration, when hundreds of people died en route The conservative government's "Stop the Boats" policies include turning back asylum-seeker vessels approaching Australian waters, which Morrison said would "ensure that the deaths at sea and the cost and the chaos and tragedy that prevailed under the previous policies of the previous government will always be a thing of the past".
The most recent case involved a people-smuggling boat carrying 38 Sri Lankans that was halted northwest of the Cocos Islands two weeks ago as it made its way to Australia.