Gillard Wins Refugee Help in New Zealand as Poll Support Slumps

New Zealand’s government agreed to resettle asylum seekers who reached Australia, helping Prime Minister Julia Gillard as she bids to increase her country’s refugee intake and prepares for elections this year.

As part of an annual intake of 750 refugees worldwide, New Zealand will accept 150 asylum seekers from Australia, Prime Minister John Key said today at a televised joint press conference in Queenstown, New Zealand. Gillard said the agreement will start in 2014.

“Both countries are committed to a regional approach to counter people smuggling,” Key said. “Australia is grappling with a huge challenge.”

Gillard, whose Labor party trails the opposition coalition in polls before the Sept. 14 election, wants to increase Australia’s annual refugee intake to 20,000 from about 13,700. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has pledged to strengthen border controls, stop boats loaded with asylum seekers, and reverse Gillard’s increased quota.

While asylum seekers have been arriving by boat in Australia since the Vietnam War in the 1970s, the issue became more politicized about a decade ago when then-Prime Minister John Howard’s Liberal-National government detained refugees, including children, in offshore processing camps or in detention centers in remote areas.

At least 1,000 asylum seekers, often from war-torn Middle Eastern and South Asian nations, are known to have drowned in the waters between Indonesia and Australia since 2001.

Opinion Poll

Backing for Gillard’s ruling Labor party fell 5 percentage points to 44 percent on a two-party preferred basis, with Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition surging 5 points to 56 percent, according to the most recent Newspoll survey, published in the Australian newspaper on Feb. 4.

Support ebbed after a former Labor lawmaker was arrested over 150 fraud charges and two cabinet ministers resigned. In New South Wales, the most populous state, an anti-corruption inquiry has heard allegations that another ex-Labor lawmaker earned millions of dollars from illegal property deals.

The 150 people assigned to New Zealand each year could come from asylum seekers already in Australia, Gillard said. Further agreements would be needed to send refugees processed offshore at centers such as the South Pacific island of Nauru, she said.

“This is a regional problem, it’s not just one nation’s problem,” Gillard said. “The more you cooperate the better.”

Australia shares intelligence on people smugglers with New Zealand and today’s offer to accept refugees was partly in exchange for that help, Key said. Some asylum seekers originally headed for New Zealand have been taken by Australia, he said.

Australia received 15,441 asylum applications in 2011, compared with 60,587 in the U.S. and 43,759 for Sweden, according to the Refugee Council of Australia. While the political debate is focused on so-called boat people, 6,316 people seeking asylum in 2010-11 arrived in Australia by air, compared with 5,175 by boat, the council says.

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