Hundreds of Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum-seekers are likely to be sent home under Julia Gillard's tough policy agenda to deter boatpeople.
As the Prime Minister prepared to unveil a new approach to tackling the issue this week - possibly including a resumption to the processing of Sri Lankan boatpeople - The Australian understands officials are working on a pact with Afghanistan over returning asylum-seekers.
It is believed the agreement, which is not expected to be included in this week's announcement, would involve assurances from Kabul guaranteeing the safety of failed asylum-seekers.
Although up to 60 per cent of Afghan asylum-seekers have had their claims rejected, only two have been returned home since the surge in boatpeople started in late 2008.
Federal cabinet will hold talks on the new approach today ahead of the Thursday deadline for a decision on whether the three-month freeze on the processing of Sri Lankan asylum-seeker claims will be extended or terminated.
In an olive branch to Indonesia following the Oceanic Viking standoff in which dozens of asylum-seekers were left in limbo, Australian officials are working on plans to resource Indonesian police on the front line of the people-smuggling struggle.
Australian Federal Police have already supplied a patrol boat in Lombok, and local officials argue that an upgrading of the current small fleet of patrol boats is urgently needed.
As Australian officials confirmed the arrival of another suspected asylum-seeker boat over the weekend near Christmas Island, carrying 34 passengers and two crew, Ms Gillard again signalled a policy shift on the issue, pledging to cast aside "political correctness".
There is a push for the Gillard government to consider lifting the freeze on the Sri Lankan applicants on the grounds that conditions there are now much safer, allowing for the deportation of more failed asylum-seekers, provided that checks were in place to monitor their safety.
The move would send a tough message to families considering paying people-smugglers for passage to Australia.
"There is no doubt about it, the best deterrent is to return people back home who are not refugees," a Gillard government source said last night.
The Prime Minister yesterday confirmed a policy announcement on boatpeople within days, declaring: "We've got some governing to do. "What I can say about asylum-seeker policy is I can understand the concerns of community members about this. And for people to say they're anxious about border security doesn't make them intolerant. It certainly doesn't make them a racist."
But Sustainable Population Minister Tony Burke yesterday ruled out a return to Howard-era temporary protection visas that would refuse permanent citizenship to people found to be genuine asylum-seekers who arrived in Australia by boat.
"Certainly the experience of temporary protection visas was that when they were introduced, the number of asylum-seekers went up," he told Sky News' Australian Agenda program.
With Ms Gillard yesterday pledging to boost regional co-operation on the issue, is also likely that Australia would increase funding to the government of Hamid Karzai to help Afghan authorities reintegrate returned asylum-seekers as part of a deal with Kabul. At the core of negotiations with Afghanistan is an assurance that the deported would be safe.
The Australian has also been told another key objective is to minimise the incentive for deported asylum-seekers to return to Australia, potentially by offering financial reintegration packages.
Yesterday, a spokesman for the Immigration Department confirmed Australia was in talks with a number of countries "about these sorts of issues", including Afghanistan. However, the spokesman emphasised Australia did not need a return agreement to start deporting failed refugees.
Since the surge in boat arrivals began in September 2008, more than 3500 Afghan asylum-seekers have journeyed to Australia's shores, making them the single biggest category of refugee.
Most have been Hazaras, who traditionally have faced persecution. But despite refusal rates for Afghans climbing to around 60 per cent, only two have been returned. In both cases, the returns were voluntary, with the other deportations held up in appeals.
The Australian has been told an agreement with Kabul is not assured, although officials are said to be hopeful of clinching a deal.
Three months ago, the Rudd government announced a freeze on the processing of asylum-seeker claims from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan following a surge in arrivals from the two nations.
The Coalition argues the freeze on processing based on country of origin is unprecedented and the government should instead reinstate temporary protection visas for all asylum seekers who arrive by boat as a deterrent measure.
Tony Abbott yesterday sought to exploit the boat arrivals ahead of the election, expected to be called within weeks.
Unveiling a Liberal Party billboard in Perth highlighting the 143 boats that had arrived under the Labor government, he said Ms Gillard had helped shape Labor's failed policy on the issue and could not be trusted to halt the boats if re-elected. "Julia Gillard has been saying for the last few days that this is the next issue that she wants to deal with and I challenge her to deal with it by adopting the Coalition's policies," he said.
The government is waiting on new guidelines from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that expected to remove the blanket assumption that any Tamil asylum-seeker from Sri Lanka's war-torn north should be considered a refugee. It will be replaced by assessments likely to -focus on high-risk groups, such as Tamils associated with the defeated Tamil Tigers or critics of the government.
Government sources said that while the government was expecting new UNHCR guidelines before Thursday's deadline, Australia was not bound by them.
The Immigration Department said yesterday 772 Afghans and 184 Sri Lankans had been affected by the freeze.
But the number of Afghans and Sri Lankans in detention is much higher. Of the more 3600 Afghans who have arrived since 2008 only 1622 had, as of July 1, been granted visas, meaning almost 2000 remained in detention.
Of the 1100 Sri Lankans who have arrived over the same period, 325 have been granted visas and 85 returned home, putting the number still in detention at around 700.
There are a total of 4251 unauthorised arrivals in immigration detention.