Australia on Wednesday moved to extend punitive refugee policies to any asylum-seeker who lands on its mainland, allowing for them to be banished to remote Nauru or Papua New Guinea for detention.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen introduced a proposal to expand the government’s powers to send boatpeople for indefinite detention in the Pacific across the entire mainland, not just the remote islands where most land.
“These changes remove the perverse incentive for people to take even greater risks by seeking to reach the Australian mainland to avoid being subject to regional processing arrangements,” Bowen said.
“The changes ensure there is one rule for all boat arrivals.”
Australia recently toughened its refugee policies in response to a record influx of people-smuggling boats – some 213 vessels carrying 13,362 passengers since January 1, according to the most recent figures.
Asylum-seekers arriving by boat are now liable to be sent to spartan detention camps on Nauru and Papua New Guinea and kept there indefinitely, a policy that has been criticised by human rights groups.
Canberra hopes the measures will deter people from paying smugglers for passage, often from Indonesia or Sri Lanka on rickety and overcrowded boats.
Most boats land at or are intercepted near the remote Australian territories of Christmas Island, close to Indonesia’s Java, or the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean.
Both are considered to be “excised” from Australia for immigration purposes, which means they are subject to special laws allowing for refugees who land there to be sent for processing in the Pacific.
The government wants to extend that excision across the Australian mainland.
Bowen conceded that the number of people who tried to make it to mainland Australia was relatively small, only 1,500 since 2008, of whom just 200 actually reached the shore.
But he insisted the new policy was an important part of efforts to deter people-smuggling, given there was presently extra incentive to get to the mainland because those who did so had to be processed domestically.
The UN’s refugee agency UNHCR criticised the move, saying it did not absolve Australia of its obligations toward refugees under international law.
It also expressed “increasing concern” about the status of more than 5,700 asylum-seekers who had arrived since the government toughened its policy and were being effectively held in limbo in Australia and Nauru.
“This effective suspension of processing raises serious legal issues, as well as concerns for the health and well-being of those affected,” the UNHCR’s Canberra office said.