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Australia heads toward immigration reform

SYDNEY, Aug. 15 (UPI) -- Australian lawmakers have advanced legislation aimed at deterring thousands of asylum seekers who try to reach the country each year on overcrowded vessels.

The lower house of Parliament passed sweeping immigration changes Wednesday permitting the deportation of asylum seekers who arrive by boat and reopening a series of remote offshore detention centers, The New York Times reported.

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Observers said the legislation is a stunning reversal of course for the government of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

It passed two days after an expert panel convened by the government recommended the changes in response to a growing number of incidents at sea that have killed more than 600 asylum seekers since 2009.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen capped the emotional debate in the House of Representatives predicting it was not the end of efforts to deal with the "very, very, very, very pernicious trade of people smuggling."

The changes are expected to pass the Australian Senate as early as Thursday, observers said.

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