SYDNEY— Australia’s plan to send many asylum seekers to neighboring Papua New Guinea are being criticized by rights groups and opposition politicians. The move is part of an immigration policy overhaul by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, aimed at curbing the record number of people seeking asylum in Australia. For its part in the asylum plan, Papua New Guinea will receive generous aid payments.
The Australian government has begun an advertising campaign on radio and television to sell its controversial asylum plan to voters ahead of elections later this year.
From now on, unauthorized arrivals who come by sea will not have the chance to be resettled in Australia as a refugee. Instead, they will be taken nearby Papua New Guinea and allowed to live there if their asylum claims are approved.
Advertisment: "People coming by boat will be sent to Papua New Guinea and permanently settled there. Paying a people smuggler is not a ticket to Australia. The rules have now changed.”
The plan was announced Friday, following talks between Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his Papua New Guinean counterpart Peter O'Neill. All asylum seekers arriving by boat will now be sent to Papua New Guinea and will not be re-settled in Australia if their asylum claims are successful.
The tough new policy comes ahead of general elections later this year, in which the country's immigration policy on asylum seekers is expected to be a potent political issue.
Rudd's main opponent, conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott, has called for tightening immigration policies to deter refugee boat arrivals, but says he doubts the new agreement will work.
“Mr. Rudd has been misleading to the point of dishonesty about this. He said that under the arrangement struck, everyone who came illegally by boat to Australia would go to PNG and that no-one who went to PNG would ever come to Australia. Neither of those assertions is borne out in the document,” Abbott said.
In recent months, the number of unauthorized boats heading to Australia’s northern waters has soared. Hundreds of asylum seekers have perished at sea in the last few years. There have been more than 15,000 arrivals since January, mostly from Iran, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. That’s only about 2,000 less than for the whole of last year.
The Rudd government insists that many asylum seekers are not fleeing persecution, but are, in fact, economic migrants. Authorities hope the Papua New Guinea plan discourages many people from taking the dangerous journey by boat.
Critics, though, accuse Rudd of striking a deal that is too tough on refugees.
Immigration lawyer David Manne said while Papua New Guinea has signed the U.N. Refugee Convention, it lacks the capacity to ensure thousands of asylum seekers are well treated.
“Look the position is clear: even if Australia seeks to transfer asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea, it does not transfer our legal responsibility to those people in relation to their treatment and their ultimate fate, and that's quite clear under international law," stated Manne. "I mean the sad reality is Papua New Guinea is an extremely unsafe place; there is no assurance that people will be given the protection they're entitled to either under law or on the ground.”
Canberra is anticipating a court challenge to its asylum deal with Papua New Guinea, but ministers insist that the agreement will withstand judicial scrutiny.
Australia grants refugee visas to about 13,000 people each year under its international obligations.