SYDNEY — More than 1,200 asylum-seekers have sailed into Australian territory since the government announced a hardline policy to stop the steady flow of boats. Last week, Canberra said people arriving unauthorized on boats would have no chance of being resettled in Australia, and would instead be sent to Papua New Guinea. The U.N. Refugee Agency says it's uneasy with the plan, while protests against the policy are taking place in Australia.
Despite the government’s promise to shut the door on asylum seekers arriving by sea, the boats continue to arrive. In the week since Canberra announced its plan to send unauthorized migrants to Papua New Guinea, 16 vessels carrying 1,200 people have sailed into Australia’s northern waters. The boats have come from Indonesia, and are organized by trafficking gangs that charge asylum seekers, mostly from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, thousands of dollars for passage to Australian territory.
Despite the arrival of hundreds of people in recent days, Richard Marles, a senior government minister, denies that the policy already has failed.
"We didn't suggest that boats would stop coming overnight. In fact, quite the opposite, I think we all imagined that there would be a process of people smugglers testing what the government has put in place and the new policy that we have. But we need to be very clear here. What this policy has done is taken Australia off the table. It will no longer be possible to get on a boat and be resettled in Australia and that message will get through,” said Marles.
Human rights concerns
The United Nations refugee agency is warning Australia that its decision to send asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea could breach international law and its human rights obligations. The UNHCR says that indefinite detention can damage the “physical and psycho-social wellbeing” of families and children.
The agency's regional representative, Richard Towle, also is worried about the lack of protection for detainees sent to PNG.
“There is no adequate legal framework for receiving, processing of refugees as of today, to govern the access to detention facilities. At the moment, people who are held there are held indefinite and what we found to be arbitrary detention, which is a fairly serious shortcoming," said Towle.
The Australian government says it is confident its Papua New Guinea asylum plan will withstand any legal challenges. Demonstrations against the policy are being held in Australia’s major cities. Organizers expect hundreds of people to attend the rallies to challenge what they say is a rise in “anti-refugee sentiment in the Australia.”
Canberra grants visas to about 13,000 refugees each year under official international resettlement programs.