SYDNEY // A boat with 81 passengers that was stopped yesterday off northwest Australia will be the first to face the government's new policy of refusing entry to refugees and sending them to neighbouring Papua New Guinea.
The people will initially be sent to Christmas Island, an Australian territory used as an immigration detention centre, immigration minister Tony Burke said today at a news conference broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
"Any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being resettled in Australia," Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told reporters in Brisbane yesterday, 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."
Mr Rudd has made tackling the number of asylum seekers journeying to Australia by boat a priority before elections that must be held by the end of November. Five people have drowned since July 12 in incidents at sea between northwest 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".
"This is a radical plan with far-reaching implications," Sharon Pickering, a professor at the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University, said by phone. "It's hard to see how this policy will be able to work within the spirit of the convention," she said, referring to the 1951 United Nations refugee convention.
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.
Australian newspapers today carried full-page advertisements by the government promoting Rudd's policy with the words "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.
Two boats were intercepted yesterday off Australia, one before the news conference to announce the refugee policy and another during the event, Burke said.
Almost all of the passengers on the boat that was stopped today, made up of single men and families, are originally from Iran, he said.
"I understand this is a very hardline decision," Mr Rudd said yesterday. "Australians are people with hard heads but also kind and compassionate hearts." The agreement with Papua New Guinea did not put a limit on the number of people who could be sent there, he said.
Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard last year reopened processing centres 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 detention centres.
Australia will expand a detention centre on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island about fivefold to house about 3,000 asylum seekers, Mr Burke told reporters in Brisbane yesterday. Children will be removed from the centre and the facilities will be improved, he said.
Mr 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.
Mr Rudd is seeking to build a platform ahead of the election, announcing changes to policies put in place by Ms Gillard which proved unpopular with voters, including a pricing system for carbon. Since he ousted Ms Gillard last month in a party-room vote, Mr Rudd's Labor has erased a deficit in opinion polls to Tony 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.
Four people drowned and 144 survivors were plucked from the water after a boat carrying suspected asylum seekers capsized while it was being escorted to Christmas Island, Australia's Customs and Border Protection Service said in a July 16 statement. An infant boy drowned on July 12 in a separate incident north of Christmas Island.
"No one should view this as being a choice between compassion and pragmatism," Mr Burke said today. "There is nothing compassionate about children drowning at sea."
The opposition welcomed the readiness of Papua New Guinea to assist Australia with asylum seekers, Mr Abbott told reporters in Brisbane yesterday.
"But we just don't trust this prime minister and this government to make it work because they haven't been able to make anything else work when it comes to stopping the boats," Mr Abbott said, describing Mr Rudd's announcement as "very light on detail".
Conditions at the Manus Island centre, which now houses 250 people, are "harsh" and don't meet international standards, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said in a July 12 report.
Canvas tents housed as many as six men each, and detainees reported poor hygiene and access to medical care, according to the report. Uncertainty about the status of refugee applications was "contributing to pervasive frustration and despondency," spokesman Adrian Edwards said in a statement on the commissioner's website.
Manus is a tropical island about 225 kilometres south of the equator off New Guinea's northeast coast. It was the site of a major US naval and air base in the closing months of World War II and was visited by anthropologist Margaret Mead in researching her book Growing up in New Guinea.