Australia Says Spike in Refugees Makes PNG Policy Unavoidable

Australia’s decision to refuse entry to refugees arriving by boat and send them to Papua New Guinea is necessary as the number of asylum seekers making the journey rises to 3,000 a month, the government said.

“The spike makes it unavoidable,” Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said today in an interview with Sky News. “It could rise further as people smugglers really close in and make a financial killing. This is what refugee advocates, many of them, and the Greens party can’t accept. The nature of the problem has changed, and that requires a new, bolder solution.”

A boat with 81 passengers that was stopped yesterday in waters off northwest Australia will be the first to face Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s “hard-line” policy on asylum seekers announced July 19. Five people have drowned since July 12 in incidents at sea between Australia and Indonesia, and the issue has eroded support for the ruling Labor Party amid pledges by opposition leader Tony Abbott to “stop the boats.”

Rudd has made asylum seekers a priority before elections that must be held by the end of November.

“Any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being resettled in Australia,” Rudd told reporters in Brisbane July 19, standing alongside Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill. “If they’re found to be genuine refugees they’ll be resettled in Papua New Guinea.”

A$200,000 Bounty

Australian police will pay as much as A$200,000 ($183,000) for information leading to the conviction of people smugglers, Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said in a statement today. The criminal groups stretch from Australia to nations including Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, he said.

The Greens party yesterday described the Labor plan on refugees as cruel, while Scott Morrison, the Australian opposition immigration spokesman, today reiterated Abbott’s statements on July 19 that Rudd’s policy is light on detail.

“They haven’t even worked out how they are going to pay for it, let alone what the procedures are going to be for resettling in Papua New Guinea,” Morrison said in an interview on Channel Ten. “And then, once they are resettled in Papua New Guinea, what do they think they are going to do? It’s not that hard to get from Papua New Guinea to Australia.”

Almost all of the passengers on the boat that was stopped yesterday, made up of single men and families, are originally from Iran, Immigration Minister Tony Burke said yesterday at a news conference broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Two boats were intercepted July 19 off Australia, one before the news conference to announce the refugee policy and another during the event, Burke said.

Nauru Riot

Weekend newspapers in Australia carried the government’s full-page advertisements promoting Rudd’s policy with the message “if you come here by boat without a visa, you won’t be settled in Australia.” A website set up to explain the plan warned people not to risk their lives or money paying smugglers.

“I understand this is a very hard-line decision,” Rudd said July 19. “Australians are people with hard heads but also kind and compassionate hearts.”

The agreement with Papua New Guinea didn’t put a limit on the number of people who could be sent there, he said.

Successive Australian governments have struggled with boat arrivals from Southeast Asia since the late 1970s, when then-Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser granted entry to more than 2,000 refugees from the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Asylum seekers at a detention center in Nauru burned buildings to the ground, causing about A$60 million in damage, after a protest escalated into a riot on July 19, the ABC said.

Then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard last year reopened processing centers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, a return to former Prime Minister John Howard’s policy of holding applicants in offshore processing camps or remote onshore centers.

Budget Neutral

Australia will expand a detention center on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island about fivefold to house about 3,000 asylum seekers, Burke said July 19. Children will be removed from the center and the facilities will be improved, he said.

Rudd said the resettlement plan would be neutral for Australia’s budget, with a statement on the costs of the policy to be put forward later.

Rudd is seeking to build a platform ahead of the election, announcing changes to policies put in place by Gillard that proved unpopular with voters, including a pricing system for carbon. Since he ousted Gillard last month in a party-room vote, Rudd’s Labor has erased a deficit in opinion polls to Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition.

More than 800 people, many from war-torn countries that have used Indonesia as a stepping stone to seek asylum, have died en route to the country since October 2009, according to the Department of Immigration.

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