Kevin Rudd

Australia's PNG refugee solution 'already working'

Australian minister cites reports of potential boatpeople reconsidering options rather than face forced resettlement in Papua New Guinea

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 July, 2013, 3:46am

Australia's new policy of resettling refugees in Papua New Guinea was already deterring boatpeople, the government said yesterday, as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd attacked people-smugglers as "merchants in death".

Rudd, facing an election soon, said last week that all asylum-seekers who arrived by boat would be sent to poverty-stricken PNG even if found to be genuine refugees, under a deal signed with its northern neighbour.

Immigration Minister Tony Burke said indications were that the plan was already having the desired impact of stopping unauthorised boats, many of which have sunk en route, drowning hundreds of men, women and children. "It's already having an effect," he said. "We've seen the reports on the ground, both from people-smugglers … [and] people who've been considering getting on boats."

The immigration department has released photos of some of 81 Iranians who arrived at the weekend after being told they would not be resettled in Australia.

One woman appeared to be distraught as she held her head in her hands and others were reported to have said they would not have made the trip if they had known of the new arrangement.

But the tightening of Australia's approach has not entirely stopped the boats. Authorities were called yesterday to search for a 12-metre Indonesian fishing vessel carrying about 30 people feared missing north of Christmas Island. It was later spotted from the air about 20 nautical miles northwest of the island and intercepted by a navy vessel.

Rudd, who was targeted by protesters bearing placards such as "No offshore processing" and "Refugees are welcome" outside a meeting of his Labor Party in Sydney, acknowledged the new policy concerned some members of the party.

Our challenge here is to deal a fatal blow to the people-smuggling industry long-term. You can't do that unless you go to the core reason this industry exists
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd

"My response … was that our challenge here is to deal a fatal blow to the people-smuggling industry long-term," he said. "And you can't do that unless you go to the core reason this industry exists, which is … them offering people around the world the prospect of coming here to live."

Rudd, who dismantled the previous conservative government's hardline immigration policy after coming to power in 2007, said the new response was ethical. He highlighted drownings, the proliferation of the industry and the fact people languishing in refugee camps overseas were not being given a fair chance of settlement in Australia.

"We have an ethical responsibility to look after people wherever we can, and that means that when people come to our shores, we look after them humanely, and through this approach [with PNG], we are doing precisely that," he said.

Australia, one of the world's biggest resettlers of refugees, takes an annual quota of 20,000 but this is being swamped by boatpeople, with more than 15,600 arriving so far this year.

Rudd said raising the refugee intake to 27,000 was still on the table, but he was signalling that "your business model is busted" to people-smugglers. "These folk are merchants in death and their business model needs to be dismantled. Part of this policy response is to do just that."

Australia began sending boatpeople to PNG and Nauru last year for processing. The new policy means they will still be sent to PNG, but they will have no prospect of settling in Australia.