Australian Prime Minister John Howard was forced to abandon a tough new immigration law yesterday in the face of certain defeat in the Senate.
The government had proposed detaining refugees in remote Pacific island camps for processing and said the measure was necessary to strengthen Australia's borders.
But critics said the plan would create a refugee equivalent of the US military's Guantanamo Bay base and accused Howard of shirking Australia's international obligations.
Many saw the legislation as an offering to Indonesia, where the government is furious that Papuan refugees have continued a vocal campaign for independence after gaining asylum in Australia.
Howard yesterday conceded the bill faced certain defeat in the Senate, where he has a razor-thin majority of just one, and said he was withdrawing the legislation.
"I believe in this bill, I still do, but I accept that there aren't the numbers in the Senate to pass it and I'm a realist as well as a democrat," Howard told reporters.
He accused the opposition Labor Party of scuttling the bill and said it had "always been weak on border protection."
Labor leader Kim Beazley hit back, accusing Howard of introducing the legislation to appease Jakarta, which temporarily withdrew its ambassador earlier this year after the government granted protection visas to 42 Papuan separatists.
"I believe Australia's sovereignty must never be traded away to appease another country," Beazley said.
The legislation sought to tighten immigration laws so that asylum-seekers who arrived in mainland Australia by boat would be sent to detention centers in the island state of Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea while their claims were processed.
If it had become law, even those found to be genuine refugees could have been refused asylum in Australia and sent instead to other countries.
Under current laws, only asylum-seekers who arrive on outlying islands or are intercepted at sea are processed on Nauru.
Opponents of the bill feared it would see asylum-seekers, including women and children, kept behind razor wire in remote camps with limited access to legal advice.
The bill was also seen as an effort to discourage further Papuan separatists from heading to Australia for asylum. Indonesia won sovereignty over Papua, formerly a Dutch colony, in 1969 after a referendum.
Papuans have long accused Indonesia's military of violating human rights in the province.
Howard suffered the biggest parliamentary revolt of his decade in office last week when three members of the Liberal-National coalition voted against the legislation in the lower house and two abstained.
Nevertheless, the bill sailed comfortably through the House of Representatives.
But Howard's lead in the Senate is wafer-thin and a revolt by just one government senator would have been sufficient to topple the legislation.