CANBERRA, Australia — Australia's Senate on Friday narrowly passed a law that creates a new class of temporary visas for refugees allowing them to stay and work in the country for three to five years but prevent them from making Australia their permanent home.
Emotional debate ended with the contention legislation passing 34 votes to 32. The bill became law later in the House of Representatives where Prime Minister Tony Abbott's conservative government holds a clear majority.
Thursday was to have been Parliament's final sitting day of the year. But sittings were extended into Friday to pass the legislation and provide Abbott with a victory for his controversial legislative agenda.
The legislation underscores the government's policy that refugees who arrive by boat will never be allowed to call Australia home.
Abbott brushed off criticisms that his government had used detained children as a political bargaining tool.
"Lots of people say lots of very harsh things in these debates, but the most compassionate thing you can do is stop the boats and that's what we have done," Abbott told Melbourne Radio 3AW.
More than 30,000 asylum seekers who arrived on Australian shores since August 2012 have yet to have their refugees claims assessed because the government doesn't want them to stay permanently.
The asylum seekers, who fled persecution and fighting in the Middle East and Asia, live in immigration detention camps or in the community under bridging visas that do not permit them to work.
The law creates a temporary three-year visa for the genuine refugees among them. They could be sent back to their homelands if the threat of persecution had diminished by the time their visas expired.
Refugees could get a five-year visa if they agreed to live and work in areas that are struggling with labor shortages.
Critics argue that such temporary visas would deprive refugees of certainty and stability in their lives because they would still have to move after their visas expire.
David Manne, who leads the Refugee and Immigration Legal Center, accused the government of using the promise to free 468 children held in an immigration detention camp on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean to pressure crucial independent senators to support the legislation.
"To use children essentially as political pawns in this deal is unconscionable," Manne said.
Ricky Muir, the sole senator from the minor Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, said he voted for the legislation despite it being unfair because it would get asylum seekers out of detention.
"I am forced into a corner to decide between a bad decision and a worse decision, a position I do not wish on my worst enemies," he said.
The government also wooed the senators with a concession to allow asylum seekers on bridging visas to work and a promise to increase Australia's refugee intake.
The Senate has twice rejected such legislation since Abbott's conservative coalition was elected in September last year.
A previous conservative government introduced so-called temporary protection visas in 1999. But a center-left Labor Party government abolished them in 2008, ensuring that genuine refugees could stay permanently.
Abbott's government has all but halted the flow of asylum-seekers who paid smugglers to bring them to Australia from Indonesian ports by using the Australian navy to turn back their rickety boats.
Since mid-2013, those who have attempted to reach Australian shores by boat have been sent to Australia-run detention camps on the impoverished Pacific island nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru.