NEW rules denying asylum seekers work rights for up to five years will be softened in response to a backlash from Labor MPs and one of the principal architects of the Gillard government's policy to stem the number of boat arrivals.
Paris Aristotle, a member of the government's expert panel on asylum seekers, has described the no-work-rights rules as inconsistent with the policy's controversial ''no advantage'' test, punitive and in breach of Australia's international treaty obligations.
Mr Aristotle welcomed a nuanced retreat by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, who signalled a willingness on Monday to put in place ''some mechanism'' for those found to be refugees, but having to wait several years for permanent protection, ''to be able to support themselves''.
Mr Bowen announced last Wednesday that, ''consistent with ''no advantage'', those who could not be sent to Nauru or Manus Island would be released into the community with ''no work rights and will receive only basic accommodation assistance and limited financial support [of $430 a fortnight]''.
The move followed the recognition that too many asylum seekers have arrived since the new approach was announced on August 13 for them to be transferred to Nauru or Manus Island.
It was an attempt to put those who will now be released on bridging visas on the same footing as those on Nauru and Manus Island, but it prompted warnings that it would create an underclass of refugees who would be ill prepared to build new lives when finally granted protection visas.
It has also escalated unrest and anxiety among the 387 who have been sent to Nauru. They say they have been treated unfairly and warn that one Iranian is close to death after being on a hunger strike for 45 days.
After representations from Mr Aristotle and others, Mr Bowen asserted on Monday that the new rules were ''not actually linked to the no-advantage principle as such'', and were more about the surge in numbers from Sri Lanka and the belief that many were ''economic migrants'' and not refugees.
He also vowed to work with those in the refugee sector to determine ''how we will deal'' with those found to be refugees under the new system, where asylum seekers whose claims are upheld must wait for as long as they would have waited to be resettled if they had stayed in a transit country - a period Mr Bowen concedes could be five years.
In comments welcomed by Labor MP Melissa Parke, Mr Bowen said he wanted ''over time'' to work out how these people had ''appropriate support and care, and where appropriate they have some mechanism in place to be able to support themselves''.
Writing exclusively in The Age today, Mr Aristotle argues the correct response to concerns about economic migration from Sri Lanka is to ''properly and quickly'' establish if this is the case by processing applications. ''Those that are refugees should be protected and those who are not can be returned,'' he writes.
''The announcements last week to disallow asylum seekers work rights and timely access to family reunion, even after they have been found to be a refugee, were not recommendations of the panel.
''The measures are highly problematic because they are a punitive form of deterrence in response to a specific and new phenomenon in people smuggling from Sri Lanka, which the government believes is for economic reasons as opposed to refugee protection.''
Mr Aristotle expresses dismay at the opposition's proposal to slash the humanitarian quota to 13,750 places and reintroduce temporary protection visas, saying it makes little sense.
He laments that the debate on asylum-seeker issues continues to be on a ''destructive and combative course''.