CANBERRA, Oct 3 (Reuters) Australia has placed a freeze on the settlement of refugees from Africa, but Prime Minister John Howard today denied that the decision was a pre-election pitch to immigration-wary voters.
Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews said refugees from Africa, including many from Sudan and the conflict-torn Darfur region, were having problems integrating in Australian communities, including many in politically sensitive regional seats.
''There are priority spots in other parts of the world, including people that have been displaced from Iraq,'' Andrews told Australian media.
''The second reason was a concern about the rate of settlement of some people in Australia, which didn't seem to be according to the rate that we would expect for other migrant groups.'' Australia would only accept refugees from conflict areas closer to home including Iraq and Myanmar until the middle of next year, having already filled its Africa quota, Andrews said.
Refugee rights groups and political opponents of the conservative government, facing national elections within months, accused Andrews and Howard of using immigration as a wedge issue to draw xenophobic voters.
But Howard said it was a ''common sense'' decision to ensure refugees were fully integrated into the community. Australia, a nation of 21 million, also began citizenship values tests this week for new migrants to speed their assimilation.
''It's not in any way racially based. The programme is just going to be rebalanced, and one of the consequences of that is the reality that there will be no more people coming from Africa until at least July of next year,'' Howard told local radio.
FIREBRAND HANSON Australian political firebrand Pauline Hanson, who a decade ago won notoriety with a call to end Asian immigration, called this year for a freeze on Sudanese immigration. Hanson is running for the upper house Senate in the coming election.
Sudanese were also branded as lawbreakers by the mayor of the city of Tamworth, west of Sydney, which voted last year to reject a trial refugee resettlement programme before condemnation forced the council to reverse the decision.
The opposition Australian Democrats said Andrews was basing his latest decision on malicious rumours.
''There's no doubt the minister is in part responding to some of the slurs put out by Pauline Hanson,'' Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett said.
African Federation Communities Council chairman Abeselom Nega said some 12,000 African migrants had arrived in Australia in the past year and there was no evidence they had failed to integrate.
''The minister is absolutely wrong,'' he said. ''(Africans) are contributing immensely to the national economy by taking jobs that ordinary Australians wouldn't have taken.'' An 18-year-old Sudanese refugee was bashed to death in Melbourne last week.
Nega said many refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan had endured persecution over race, political views, gender or religion, and did not need more from Australia's government.
''Most of these people would have been in refugee camps for many years, particularly those people who come from Sudan; the average stay in some parts of Africa is 17 years,'' he said.
A spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said Sudanese were ''under-represented'' in crime statistics and called on Canberra to base its refugee intake on the need for protection rather than ability to integrate.
Reuters SG DB1010