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Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaks to the media during a news conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, May 8, 2016 after asking Australia's Governor-General Peter Cosgrove to dissolve both Houses of Parliament to call a double dissolution election for July 2, 2016. AAP/Lukas Coch/via REUTERS

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By Matt Siegel

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in the midst of a tight election campaign, came under fire on Thursday for backing his immigration minister over claims resettling "illiterate and innumerate" refugees would strain the social safety network.

Opposition Labor Party leader Bill Shorten labelled Immigration Minister Peter Dutton's comments "xenophobic", while refugee advocates such as an Ian Rintoul, a spokesman for the high-profile Refugee Action Coalition, condemned the comments.

"They want to run a cry of xenophobia, they want to undermine the migrant contribution to Australia because they don't want this election to be about the issues that matter to Australians," Shorten told reporters.

"The issue is that yesterday migrants were demonised by Peter Dutton, and Malcolm Turnbull backed Peter Dutton over the great immigration history of this country," Shorten said.

Dutton on Tuesday sparked outrage when he said an increase in the annual refugee intake would lead to an influx of uneducated foreigners who would steal jobs from Australian citizens and strain the social safety network.

Border security and immigration are hot political issues in Australia that have swayed past elections and resulted in a bipartisan policy under which asylum seekers arriving by boat are sent to South Pacific island detention camps.

The conservative government last year pledged to take 12,000 refugees from Syria on top of its 13,750 annual quota. The centre-left opposition Labor Party says it will double the annual quota to 27,000 by 2025 if it wins elections on July 2.

Labor and the smaller left-wing opposition Greens Party have seized on Dutton's comments to paint the government as heartless and divisive, accusing it playing wedge politics.

Labor says it will continue the government's immigration policy of offshore detention, but Turnbull is seeking to portray the party as weak on immigration and border security.

"Bill Shorten is only interested in the politics of this issue," Turnbull said.

Refugee advocate Rintoul said Dutton's comments were a reaction to the government's slipping voter support, but added immigration and border security was unlikely to play as well as in the past.

"I think it's been a serious mistake and it hasn't worked for the government at all to play the boat card the way they have in other election cycles," Rintoul told Reuters.

The issue of asylum seekers in Pacific detention camps has been a growing problem for Turnbull, with Papua New Guinea announcing the closure of a detention centre, and the deaths of asylum seekers in a camp on Nauru.

(Reporting by Matt Siegel)

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