July 19, 2013
By MATT SIEGEL
SYDNEY, Australia — Prime Minister Kevin Rudd [Labor] of Australia moved on Friday to curtail the record number of people trying the dangerous boat journey to claim asylum in the country, pledging that no one who arrives by boat without a visa will ever be granted permission to settle in Australia.
Under the tough policy, all asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat will be sent to a refugee-processing center in nearby Papua New Guinea, which like Australia is a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention. If the asylum seekers are found to be genuine refugees, they will be resettled in Papua New Guinea, but forfeit any right to asylum in Australia.
Mr. Rudd, who is facing a hotly contested federal election within weeks, acknowledged that the policy was harsh and likely to face legal challenges. But he said that something had to be done to protect the lives of asylum seekers and to restore the integrity of the country’s borders.
“Australians have had enough of seeing people drowning in the waters to our north,” Mr. Rudd said at a news conference. “Our country has had enough of people smugglers exploiting asylum seekers and seeing them drown on the high seas.”
“As of today asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia,” he said.
No issue looms larger over Australian politics than how to deal with asylum seekers, and it is unclear whether Mr. Rudd’s tough new policy will score him any political points.
... Under the so-called Pacific Solution of Prime Minister John Howard a decade ago, asylum seekers were transported to nearby island nations like Papua New Guinea and Nauru for a lengthy processing intended to remove the incentive for claiming asylum on Australia’s shores. The policy, which was roundly criticized by human rights advocates, was abandoned when Mr. Rudd became prime minister for the first time in 2007.
But Mr. Rudd’s change of policy backfired spectacularly, leading to an explosion in the number of arrivals from a mere 161 in 2008 to 11,599 in just the first three quarters of 2012-13, the latest period for which official statistics have been published. The majority of arrivals are from Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka.
In 2012, Prime Minister Julia Gillard effectively revived the Pacific Solution, opening offshore detention centers in Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. However, those two centers could not accommodate the steady stream of new arrivals and Australia is now facing a backlog of some 20,000 people awaiting processing.
... Given the success of the opposition leader Tony Abbott’s use of the governing Labor Party’s failed refugee policies as a cudgel, and with an election approaching, the political calculus may prove more relevant than the fiscal.
The new asylum policy appears to be part of a concerted effort by Mr. Rudd to nullify Mr. Abbott’s main lines of attack ahead of the election. Earlier in the week he announced an end to another of Ms. Gillard’s unpopular programs — a tax on carbon emissions of which Mr. Abbott was highly critical.