Australia's government began releasing asylum-seekers from immigration detention centres on Friday in a reversal of tough border security policies forced by the country's highest court and the failure of a refugee swap agreement with Malaysia.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said 27 mostly Afghan and Sri Lankan men who arrived by boat had been released from detention on so-called bridging visas while their claims to be treated as refugees were assessed.
There are plans to release as many as 100 people a month into the community on similar visas, he said.
This will be an ongoing, staged process to ensure an orderly transition to the community and that only suitable people are released, Bowen told reporters.
Asylum seekers are a hot political issue in Australia, although U.N. figures show the country ranks 46th on a list of nations hosting refugees and asylum seekers, with just under 0.5 percent of the world's total.
Voters are traditionally concerned about border security and around 100 boats have arrived with more than 5,000 people on board since Prime Minister Julia Gillard won power last year, with most sent to jail-like immigration detention centres.
The United Nations' top human rights watchdog criticised Australia's draconian refugee policies earlier this year, saying long-standing policies of locking up asylum seekers had cast a shadow over Australia's human rights record.
Australia's High Court then blocked the deportation of asylum seekers to Malaysia under a deal to exchange them for approved refugees, and political opposition in the parliament forced Gillard to change detention policies.
Bowen said asylum seekers released on bridging visas would be free to live with family and friends in the community, and would also be able to work and have access to healthcare.
But he said the government remained committed to mandatory detention policies and called on political opponents -- who support detention, but not Gillard's failed Malaysia deal -- to back the government in parliament.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR and Australia's Human Rights Commission said the shift was sensible and positive, because asylum seekers arriving by boat would be treated the same as others coming by air, often from Europe and the United States.
While the numbers arriving by air without appropriate visas vastly outnumbered asylum-seekers arriving by boat, the former received much more lenient treatment.
UNHCR has been very concerned, for many years, about the human impact of mandatory detention on asylum-seekers and refugees arriving by boat to Australia, UNHCR regional representative Richard Towle said.
(Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Paul Tait)