The AgeNews26/12/2012picture Justin McManus.Boxing Day Test, Australia V Sri Lanka at the MCG.Tamil protesters outside the MCG.

No more spin ... human rights protesters outside the MCG urged ticket holders to stay away from the Test, saying Sri Lanka should be exiled from world sport. Photo: Justin McManus

IN JUNE, Australia watched with horror as televisions screened graphic scenes of scores of boatpeople crashing and thrashing against the rocks of Christmas Island's unforgiving coast.

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, cut short her leave and, later that month, about 130 people were rescued when their boat sank off Indonesia.

No longer, it was decided, could Australia afford to let the boats come. There were extraordinary scenes in Parliament as politicians openly wept for the lives of asylum seekers who had died at sea in search of a safer life in Australia.

CHRISTMAS ISLAND - JUNE 22: A barge carrying rescued suspected asylum seekers nears Christmas Island on June 22, 2012 on Christmas Island. Rescuers are searching for survivors off the coast of Christmas Island after a boat carrying suspected asylum seekers capsized yesterday. The boat was believed to be carrying 200 asylum seekers when an Australian Customs and Border Protection surveillance plane spotted a vessel in distress at 3pm AEST yesterday. Three men have been confirmed dead, with up to 90 missing after 110 people were rescued. Indonesian and Australian authorities are cooperating in the rescue effort, which is centred on an area approximately 200km north of Christmas Island. (Photo by Scott Fisher/Getty Images)

Tragedy … survivors are ferried to Christmas Island. Photo: Getty Images

But the tears swiftly turned to acrimony, as the parties failed to agree and Labor, the Greens and the Coalition blamed each other for contributing to the deaths.

Ms Gillard, known for her pragmatic negotiating skills, announced in August the establishment of an ''expert panel'', headed by the former Air Force chief Angus Houston.

That panel recommended a raft of policies be adopted in both the short and the longer term, to deter people making the dangerous voyage to Australia.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young during the Migration Legislation Amendment debate at Parliament House in Canberra on Thursday 28 June 2012.Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Sarah Hanson-Young breaks down in Parliament. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

The Coalition supported the government in reopening detention centres on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, and in Nauru, which had signed the Refugee Convention since the Howard government sent thousands there under the ''Pacific solution''.

But it would not support other measures the panel stressed were part of a package deal of policies, including the Malaysia solution and regional processing arrangements that the panel warned were key to the package's success. As one pundit observed, the Coalition supported the stick and ignored the carrot.

And so, at the end of 2012, Australia's immigration policies have become an eerie echo of those in place a decade earlier.

Michael Keenan speaks during the debate about the Oakeshott asylum seeker Bill at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday 27 June 2012. Photo: Andrew Meares

Michael Keenan. Photo: Andrew Meares

With the agreement of the Coalition - and against the acrimony of the Greens - Australia reinstated offshore processing of asylum seekers and reopened detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

Asylum seekers allowed to stay in Australia will do so on a temporary basis: while the Howard government had genuine refugees living in the community on temporary protection visas, the Gillard government introduced a new form of bridging visa for those awaiting their asylum determination.

Overcrowded detention camps forced the government to begin releasing hundreds of asylum seekers on bridging visas. It expects to release thousands into the community on the new visas, which will not include the right to work and will entitle people to just 89 per cent of the lowest Centrelink payment, or about $440 a fortnight.

Permitted only a few weeks' help to find housing - and with no access to English language training - the asylum seekers will be forced to live on little more than $30 a day.

Since August 13, under the tough new no-advantage policy, anyone who comes by boat to Australia will be sent to Nauru or Manus Island, or released into the community on the bridging visa, and they will be forced to wait in uncertain circumstances for up to five years (the same period of time the government says they would have waited in a refugee camp for a place). Again, self-harm and hunger strikes are breaking out at offshore camps.

Meanwhile, a new and more dangerous passage opened on the high seas, with Sri Lankans braving the more than 3000-kilometre voyage to Cocos Islands.

A tiny fly-speck of Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands' few hundred residents had seen asylum seeker boats before, but never in the number that began arriving from May.

A single inflatable dingy owned by the Australian Federal Police and a puttering car ferry had to be supplemented by customs patrol boats as more Sri Lankan asylum seekers arrived.

But the most desperate cases involved more than 50 people trapped in what one backbench MP described as a ''legal black hole'' - found to be genuine refugees but branded a security threat by the intelligence agency, ASIO, they were not permitted release.

Nor was the group - mostly Tamil - allowed to know the reasons for their adverse assessment or to appeal the finding.

No other country was willing to accept these refugees and some had been held in detention for up to three years. The mental toll led to a spate of suicide attempts.

David Manne, the lawyer who successfully up-ended the government's so-called ''Malaysia solution'' - before the Coalition scuttled the government's attempt to legislate around the finding - brought a new High Court challenge over the fairness of holding people in indefinite detention.

The case was won but the outcome produced a Clayton's review, with detainees allowed to apply for review but ASIO retaining a final veto.

In 2012 ''asylum'', far from meaning haven, became a by-word for discord.

❏ Two boats carrying more than 100 people have been intercepted in Australian waters since Christmas Day. They were to be transferred to Christmas Island, Australian Customs and Border Protect Service said. A boat with about 95 passengers and three crew was intercepted east of Ashmore Island on Tuesday. The passengers, and another six people intercepted on on Wednesday, were to go to Christmas Island.