Australia on Saturday defended its decision to temporarily stop processing asylum-seekers from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, saying its approach was legal and non-discriminatory.
Australia's human rights watchdog and refugee supporters had questioned Canberra's move to immediately stop taking new applications from asylum-seekers from those two countries, saying it could be unfair to Afghans and Sri Lankans.
"We have very strong legal advice that the suspension is within all the legal requirements in this country," Immigration Minister Chris Evans said.
Evans said the new policy -- which means asylum-seekers arriving from Sri Lanka will be unable to apply for a visa for three months and those from Afghanistan for six months -- was not discriminatory.
"They are not losing any rights, they will still have their rights... honoured," he told reporters.
The minister said the new policy, which comes as the number of boats carrying asylum-seekers being intercepted by Australian border control officers is rising, was in the country's best interests.
The government has said the changes have been introduced because of the improving situations in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, and comply with Australia's international obligations to refugees.
"We do not accept that... everyone who comes here is a refugee," Evans said.
Canberra also wants to crack down on people-smugglers who bring asylum-seekers into Australian waters, often on ill-equipped wooden boats.
The announcement created concern among rights and refugee groups, with Australia's Human Rights Commission saying there was a risk the policy would discriminate against people based on their nationality.
"The Australian Human Rights Commission is fearful that it will lead to breaches of Australia's international human rights obligation, in particular our obligation under the refugees convention not to treat groups of people differently based on their country of origin," president Cathy Branson said.
The Australian Lawyers Alliance also said the policy could breach the law.
"The law in Australia and the rule of law is such that laws have to be applied equally, irrespective of where a person comes from or their race," the alliance's Greg Barns told ABC Radio.
Richard Towle, UNHCR Regional Representative for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, said his organisation would closely monitor the impact of the policy change on asylum-seekers.
"UNHCR believes that all asylum-seekers and refugees should be treated humanely and given the opportunity to have any claims for protection fairly assessed," he said in a statement late Friday.
"We are currently examining Australia's announcement, particularly with regard to issues around the detention of vulnerable persons and the provision of social support for those asylum-seekers subject to this suspension."
More than 1,800 boat people have arrived in Australia since the beginning of the year, the majority from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan -- countries which have endured years of conflict.
So far they have been held in mandatory detention on Christmas Island -- a remote territory off Australia's northwest -- until they could be processed but Evans said some may be sent to Darwin if Christmas Island becomes overcrowded. (AFP)