SYDNEY // Australia's newly reinstated prime minister, Kevin Rudd, has toughened his stance on asylum seekers, claiming that many of the hundreds who arrive each month in boats - particularly those from Iran - are "economic migrants" rather than refugees.
The issue will top Mr Rudd's agenda as he flies to Indonesia today to seek greater cooperation to reduce what he says are "people-smuggling" networks.
Indonesia is the main transit point for asylum-seekers, most of whom come from South Asia and the Middle East, particularly Afghanistan, Iran, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. But refugee advocates argue that many migrants deserve asylum and the process used to assess their claims does not need to be tightened.
Mr Rudd's comments stepped up the debate about how to deal with so-called "boat people" ahead of elections this year.
During his previous term as prime minister, Mr Rudd dismantled the so-called "Pacific Solution", under which his predecessor, the conservative prime minister John Howard, sent boat people to Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island, in the South Pacific, for processing.
Julia Gillard, who took over from Mr Rudd in 2010 and was ousted by him last week, revived the policy, after the High Court struck down her attempts to "swap" asylum-seekers arriving here with refugees awaiting resettlement in Malaysia.
Now in power again, Mr Rudd has hardened his rhetoric.
"Let's just face some facts here," he told ABC radio on Saturday. "A whole bunch of people who seek to come to this country are economic migrants, who are seeking to comport themselves as refugees."
His foreign minister, Bob Carr, has gone further, attributing a recent surge in boat arrivals - nearly 7,500 people in the first quarter of this year, an Australian record - to people-smugglers stepping up operations, and numbers being swelled by economic migrants.
"These are increasingly not people fleeing persecution", he said last week, arguing that many come from "majority religious and ethnic groups" in their countries.
Mr Carr has singled out "middle-class Iranians" in particular as economic migrants, claiming that "they're leaving their country because of the economic pressures" largely caused by international sanctions imposed on the country for its nuclear programme.
Analysts said Mr Rudd was trying to tackle an issue that will figure prominently in the election, and which the opposition has accused him of being "soft" on.
Mr Carr has called boat people the top challenge facing the new government. Observers say it is not because of the numbers - Australia receives only three per cent of the world's asylum-seekers, proportionally less than Malta, Lichtenstein and Luxembourg - but because it could influence blue-collar voters, who have said boat people will compete with them for jobs and add to population congestion.
The opposition leader, Tony Abbott, has pledged, if he wins the election, to order the navy to "turn the boats back".
Mr Rudd last week attacked that idea as risking a confrontation with Australia's populous northern neighbour.
Mr Abbott has called Mr Rudd - whose new cabinet includes Australia's first Muslim front-bencher, Ed Husic, the son of Bosnian refugees - "the best friend the people smugglers ever had".
David Manne, a leading refugee lawyer, this week said that the government's plan to toughen the approval and appeals process risked contravening the UN refugee convention, which Australia has signed.
The president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, also questioned how policymakers could dub most boat people economic migrants when 90 per cent of asylum applicants were found to be genuine refugees.
For all the talk of deterrence, domestic policies influence only 10 to 20 per cent of people considering seeking asylum, according to Andrew Carr, an academic at the Australian National University.
As well as "push factors" - such as war or ethnic persecution - he cites "informal networks, such as those [people] already in Australia encouraging others to come … [as] much more significant" for encouraging people to get on boats and make the journey.
John Mikler, a foreign-policy expert at Sydney University, agreed that conditions overseases were responsible for most refugee flows.
"The numbers [coming here] are not that great, compared with other countries," he said. "It's really been blown out of all proportion."