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July 19, 2013 4:58 pm
In a dramatic overhaul of Australia’s asylum-seeker policy, people who arrive by boat without a visa will be sent to Papua New Guinea for assessment, Kevin Rudd, the prime minister, announced on Friday.
They will have no chance of being resettled in Australia, he said, adding that if they are found to be refugees, they will be settled in Papua New Guinea.
“Our country has had enough of people-smugglers exploiting asylum seekers and setting them down on the high seas,” said Mr Rudd.
The prime minister’s “hardline decision” follows a sharp rise in the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat. People-smugglers have sent more than 15,000 people to Australia already this year, according to the Department of Immigration, only 2,000 fewer than arrived in the whole of 2012.
More than 800 people have lost their lives attempting the hazardous journey between Indonesia, a key stopping-off point, and Australia since 2009.
The announcement comes ahead of a national election that must be held by the end of the November. Mr Rudd, who ousted Julia Gillard as leader of the ruling Labor party last month, has been seeking to reverse voter discontent with the government’s asylum-seeker policy and counter attacks from Tony Abbott, the opposition leader, who has pledged to “turn back the boats”.
In an attempt to neutralise the issue, the government re-opened processing centres on PNG and the Pacific island of Nauru last year. However, the move – which has been criticised for the conditions that asylum seekers face at the camps – failed to deter the number of people arriving by boat.
Government policy on asylum seekers and “boat people” – a term that dates from the arrival of vessels carrying refugees from Indochina in the 1970s – has long been a contentious issue in Australian politics and elections.
The number of boat people fell when the former prime minister John Howard introduced the Pacific Solution – a series of policies that saw boats turned back and asylum seekers sent to offshore detention centres – more than 10 years ago. This policy was, however, widely criticised by human rights groups and later eased.
Under the new regional resettlement arrangement, there will be no cap on the number of people who can be transferred to PNG, which is a signatory of the UN refugee convention. In return for accepting boat arrivals, Australia has promised to channel aid to PNG, funding a big hospital redevelopment and assisting with the reform of its higher education sector. It will also support settlement services for those given refugee status.
Mr Rudd said the new arrangement was designed to show people-smugglers and their criminal associates that “their business model was now undermined”.
“In the period ahead, our governments intend to make sure that the message is delivered loud and clear to people-smuggling networks around the world, and those criminal elements within Australia who may be supporting them, that the hopes that they offer their customers for the future are nothing but false hopes,” he said.
Since Mr Rudd, who served as Australia’s prime minister between 2007 and 2010, returned to power in June, Labor has enjoyed a surge in the opinion polls. The party is now neck and neck with the Liberal-National coalition, led by Mr Abbott.
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