PRIME minister Kevin Rudd announced yesterday that all refugees who arrive in Australia by boat will be resettled on the island nation of Papua New Guinea, a policy shift immediately condemned by human rights groups.
The move, described by Mr Rudd as “very hard line,” aims to deter an escalating number of asylum seekers who travel to Australia in rickety fishing boats from poor, war-torn homelands through other countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
The growing influx is a major political problem for Mr Rudd’s Labour party, which is the clear underdog in elections expected within months.
“From now on, any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees,” Mr Rudd told reporters after signing a pact with premier Peter O’Neill of Papua New Guinea that will enable Australia to deport refugees there.
The policy was condemned by refugee and civil rights advocates.
The new plan “shows not only a complete disregard for asylum seekers but absolute contempt for legal and moral obligations,” said Graeme McGregor, Amnesty International’s refugee campaign co-ordinator for Australia.
David Manne, executive director of Australia’s Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, described the policy shift as “a fundamental repudiation of our commitment to protecting refugees”.
Mr Manne described Papua New Guinea – which is near Australia in the south-western Pacific Ocean – as an unsafe country where violence is widespread and serious human rights abuses are a daily occurrence.
Mr Rudd insisted the policy met Australia’s obligations under the United Nations’ Refugee Convention. Papua New Guinea is a signatory of the same convention that sets out refugees’ rights.
Asylum seekers who arrive by boat will continue to have their refugee claims assessed in Australia and at detention camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
Australia will also help genuine refugees settle in Papua New Guinea – a tribal society of more than 800 languages and seven million people who are mostly subsistence farmers. Those who are found not to be genuine refugees could return to their home countries or another country other than Australia.
As of yesterday, 15,728 asylum seekers had arrived in Australia by boat this year. The arrivals are on track to exceed last year’s total of 17,202 as well as the government’s target of resettling 20,000 refugees a year.
Iran has become the biggest source country. Asylum seekers from there last year accounted for one in seven arrivals. This year, they make up one in three.
Indonesia also announced on Thursday it will stop issuing visas on arrival to Iranians in a bid to stem the flow to Australia.
Mr Rudd said his government would negotiate with other neighbours in a bid to restrict visa access from other source countries. Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Vietnam, Iraq, Bangladesh and Myanmar are the next largest sources of asylum seekers arriving on Australian shores.
Mr O’Neill set no limit on how many asylum seekers his country was prepared to accept.
“It is not going to be easy, but of course Papua New Guinea is blessed with a large land mass and a very small population so there is enough assistance that we can give to the Australian government,” he said.
Australia is PNG’s former colonial master and its largest source of foreign aid. In return for accepting the refugees, Mr Rudd said Australia will redevelop a hospital in PNG’s second largest city and reform its university sector.
The new policy echoes a 2001 pledge to reject any asylum applications credited with all but stopping the flow of refugees.