Australia Opposition Leader Abbott Pledges to Cut Refugee Intake

Australian Opposition Leader Tony Abbott
Tony Abbott, Australia's opposition leader. Photographer: Mark Graham/Bloomberg

Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott said he’ll cut the nation’s refugee intake to save A$1.3 billion ($1.35 billion) over four years if he wins office in elections due next year.

Abbott, whose Liberal-National coalition leads polls, would reverse Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s bid to increase the annual refugee intake to 20,000 from about 13,700 now. In an interview on Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio, Abbott also said refugees should be forced to work before they received any financial benefits from the government.

“We want to break the something for nothing mentality,” Abbott, 55, said. “If it’s right and proper for young Australians to be working for the dole, surely it’s even more right and proper for people who have come illegally to our country to be pulling their weight.”

Abbott’s stance comes as a move by Gillard’s minority Labor government to halt an influx of refugees arriving by boat looks to have failed. At least 1,000 asylum seekers, often from war-torn Middle Eastern and South Asian nations, are known to have drowned in the waters between Indonesia and Australia since 2001.

“Abbott is trying to sell this policy as being both fiscally responsible and as tough on asylum seekers,” said John Warhurst, a political analyst at the Australian National University in Canberra. “He wants to differentiate himself from the government and keep the issue alive in voters’ minds.”

Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen shepherded laws through parliament on Aug. 17 to allow refugees to be processed on the South Pacific island nation of Nauru and in Papua New Guinea in a bid to deter asylum seekers from paying Indonesian smugglers to ferry them in overcrowded boats to Australia.

Underclass Risk

A total of 7,874 asylum seekers have arrived in Australia by boat since Aug. 13, while the two offshore detention centers will have a capacity of 2,100 people when completed, according to the government.

Bowen on Nov. 21 announced a policy shift to allow some asylum seekers to be “processed in Australia and processed in the community.” They won’t be allowed to work for as long as five years and can be transferred offshore at any time in that period.

That policy risks creating an underclass in Australia, Abbott said today.

“The worst possible preparation for life in Australia is five years on welfare,” he said. “It’s saying to the people smugglers and their customers, if you get to Australia you’ll eventually get what you want -- namely permanent residency and ultimately Australian citizenship -- but you’ll be sitting on the dole for five years.”

Polls Narrow

Polls show Gillard’s ruling Labor party has in recent months rebounded from near-record lows to narrow the gap against the opposition.

Labor’s primary vote remained on 36 percent, while Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition rose 2 points to 43 percent, according to a Newspoll survey published in the Australian newspaper Nov. 13. Taking preference votes into account, Labor dipped 1 point to 49 percent and the opposition rose 1 point to 51 percent on a two-party preferred basis.

Processing refugees in Papua New Guinea and Nauru marks a return to former Prime Minister John Howard’s so-called Pacific Solution that was scrapped after Labor won office in 2007.

While asylum seekers have been arriving by boat in Australia since the Vietnam War in the 1970s, the issue became more politicized about a decade ago when Howard’s Liberal-National government detained refugees, including children, in offshore processing camps or in detention centers in remote areas.

Inhumane, Degrading

Some asylum seekers responded to their detention with riots, suicides and by sewing their lips together to protest, with a United Nations report released in 2002 saying their treatment was “inhumane and degrading.”

In August 2001, Howard refused to allow 430 asylum seekers on the MV Tampa, a Norwegian freighter, to enter Australian waters and ordered soldiers to board the ship. His bid to deter people smugglers included orders to the Navy to “turn back the boats,” a phrase Abbott repeats as opposition policy.

The nation received 15,441 asylum applications last year, compared with 60,587 in the U.S. and 43,759 for Sweden, according to the Refugee Council of Australia. While the political debate is focused on so-called boat people, 6,316 people seeking asylum in 2010-11 arrived in Australia by air, compared with 5,175 by boat, the council says.

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