CANBERRA, Australia, July 14 (UPI) -- Australian Immigration Minister Chris Evans said the immigration debate is "killing" the government and he takes full responsibility for the "toxic" discussions in all media.
His comments come as the government, in a controversial move, recently started moving boat-people refugees from an overcrowded processing center on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean to smaller, isolated camps on the mainland until their applications are complete.
Australia is struggling with a continuous flow of refugees arriving by boat, mostly from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. More than 3,000 have arrived this year, many coming by way of Indonesia with the help of notorious people smugglers.
Evans was the opening speaker at a conference on worldwide immigration at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. He made his comments to immigration experts after he had given a news conference but a journalist was still in the room.
Evans was addressing the experts as if talking to a group of friends, devoid of political rhetoric, the radio journalist said.
Evans reportedly said that controlling the debate on immigration is one of his greatest failings as minister and too often the media, including Twitter comments, were overly aggressive in their debates.
Evans said discussions were toxic because they were hardening people's attitudes. He had allowed misinformation to get out, had allowed radio shock-jocks to control the debate and not have it based on hard fact and information.
An example is linking immigration to population growth and sustainability in Australia. This was irrational because there are very few boat people in relation to the overall population, Evans reportedly said.
The minister later denied on a local radio station that his remarks would cost him his job.
"No I don't think so," he said. "It's obviously a challenge for me to make sure people have the facts, that I explain what the reality is and what the government's position is."
Evans' remarks come as an Australian naval vessel intercepted another asylum-seeker boat off the northwest coast. Border Protection Command said the boat carrying 84 immigrants and three crew will be transferred to Christmas Island to undergo security, identity and health checks.
The government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard faces a national election this year amid concerns over the refugee situation, an issue that has been a growing concern for successive governments in Canberra.
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith is heading to Indonesia this week for talks with his counterpart, Marty Natalegawa, in Jakarta. A main topic is the possibility of setting up a regional processing center, possibly in Timor-Leste, off the northwestern coast of Australia.
"I think when we sit down with not just Indonesia but other countries in the region the policy rationale for a regional processing center is to undercut the incentive for secondary movement, particularly by boat across the high seas in dangerous circumstances," he said.
Timor-Leste's president was initially warm to the idea as long as it was a temporary move.
But the island nation's parliament voted unanimously against a center, even if it were to be run by a third party such as the United Nations. Their concern was it would be a dumping ground for refugees from many other nations.
Indonesia also expressed initial concern over a regional center, saying it might encourage more would-be refugees to head to Indonesia and pay people smugglers for passage on an unseaworthy boat bound for the center.
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