Australia axes free advice for asylum-seekers

SYDNEY (AFP) - Asylum-seekers arriving in Australia on unauthorised boats will no longer be granted free advice on immigration matters, the government said on Monday.

Scrapping the scheme that helped asylum-seekers complete visa applications and gave them advice on complex immigration matters is expected to save A$100 million (S$116 million) over four years.

"From today people who arrived illegally by boat, as well as illegally by air, will no longer receive taxpayer-funded immigration advice and assistance," Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said.

"Australia's protection obligations do not extend to providing free immigration advice and assistance to those who arrived in Australia illegally," he added in a statement.

Sydney has developed an increasingly hardline policy on asylum-seekers arriving on smuggler boats in recent years, with all arrivals now sent to Pacific island camps and denied resettlement in Australia.

Saturday marked 100 days since an asylum-seeker had arrived by boat in Australia, although the government refuses to say how many vessels have been turned back to transit hubs such as Indonesia.

Morrison said the axing of the free advice scheme did not prevent asylum-seekers from accessing legal assistance and those who wished to provide immigration advice pro bono were free to do so.

The government would still provide asylum-seekers with clear instructions in multiple languages on the application and assessment process and would also provide interpreters, he said.

The government will provide a small amount of additional support to those considered vulnerable, including unaccompanied minors.

The end of the programme comes as the government prepares to hand down a national budget in May that promises to force Australians to "live within our means".

"We have to make the decision to reduce government expenditure and we have to find ways to try and increase revenue as well," Treasurer Joe Hockey said.