The Labor government’s new policy, which seeks to halt the people smuggling trade, fails to address the protection of asylum seekers, Head of Melbourne Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Kon Karapanagiotidis says.

Mr Karapanagiotidis, talking to Neos Kosmos, said that the Labour government needs to focus on treating the asylum seekers rather than directing their policy towards people smugglers.

“People are going to flee their countries, you cannot stop people smuggling,” he said.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced Labor’s policy on asylum seekers on Tuesday, vowing to remove the profitability of the people smuggling trade, the danger of the voyage and the incentive for boats to leave their port of origin in the first place.

Mr Karapanagiotidis said Ms Gillard’s message is positive but the policy is not a long-term solution and Australia should take responsibility for the problem of East Timor, an impoverished country that needs our help.

“This is the same as the Howard policy, out of sight, out of mind. The Labor government needs to answer the question ‘Is Australia is going to increase its migration intake?’,” Mr Karapanagiotidis said.

Ms Gillard said Australia’s population growth is inevitable. “In the years ahead, our population will continue to grow, but the issue for Australia is both the speed of that growth and whether and where it can be sustained”, she said.

Ms Gillard said the 13,750 people arriving by boat to Australia each year is a fraction of the annual migration intake.

“Last year, Australia received 0.6 per cent of the world’s asylum seekers. It is less than 1.5 per cent of permanent migrants each year” she said.

Senior Deputy Chairman, Dr Sundram Sivamalai of The Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia (FECCA) commended the Labor government’s policy and their decision to lift the suspensions on processing of Sri Lankan asylum seekers’ visa applications.

“The government’s new border security policy is also commendable in its clear recognition that asylum seekers are people who deserve to be treated with decency and humanity” Sivamalai said.

However, Sivamalai said they are calling on the government to lift the ban on the processing of Afghani refugees’ asylum claims. The government said they would immediately lift the ban on the handling of Sri Lankan asylum claims but not Afghani asylum seekers as yet.

A joint press release from Tony Abbott, leader of the opposition, Scott Morrison, Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, and Michael Keenan, Shadow Minister for Justice and Customs, said that the number of people in detention under the Labor government has increased from four people who arrived illegally by boat in November 2007 to more than 3,500 today, with detention programmes costing tax-payers at least $1 billion.

The coalition said their policy would focus on mainly offshore processing in another country, temporary protection visas and being prepared to turn back boats where the circumstances allow.

However, Ms Gillard refuted opposition leader Tony Abbott’s claim that the Howard Government had an active policy of turning boats back.

“For the entire time of the Howard Government, only seven boats were turned back…the Howard Government did not turn a boat back after 2003”, she said.

President of the Refugee Council of Australia, John Gibson, said it was positive that Ms Gillard acknowledged the reasons people flee their countries as well as comparing Australia’s comparatively low number of asylum seekers to other countries.

Gibson said unlike the Prime Minister’s predecessor who demonised asylum seekers by referring to them as illegal, Ms Gillard spoke positively about the new policy, which offers solutions as opposed to the opposition who are relying on discredited policies.

“What we would like to see is the refugee program being properly resourced, which clearly means best practice, proper accommodation, with realistic, and genuine settlement outcomes. Without those things we have some real concerns”, Gibson said.

Following Tuesday’s announcement the Prime Minister has said discussion with East Timor about building an offshore processing centre for asylum seekers is still a main focus of the Government’s plan, despite being criticisized for failing to properly consult East Timor.

Ms Gillard admitted she is yet to speak to East Timorese Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, and has only spoken to the country’s president, Jose Ramos Horta, about her proposal. Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, said Ms Gillard should have known to deal with East Timor’s Prime Minister, not its president, who holds no executive role.

The Prime Minister said she will speak to Mr Gusmao in coming days, after President Jose Ramos-Horta indicated he was open to discussions about the plan. However, Mr Gusmao’s deputy, Jose Luis Guterres, said East Timor was “very unlikely” to agree to Ms Gillard’s plan.