The Australian prime minister has thrown her backing behind a plan to send asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea and the Pacific island of Nauru, setting the stage for her government to reinstate a system that it abandoned under pressure from human rights groups years ago.
“Anybody who comes to Australia by boat should be very clear about the possibility of not being processed in Australia,” Chris Bowen, minister for immigration and citizenship, told reporters Monday.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard had pushed to send asylum seekers to Malaysia while their claims were processed. More than 7,000 people have taken dangerous trips by boat to reach the country this year, most of them from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka, according to the Australian government. This year alone, scores have perished as crowded boats faltered and sank.
Opponents of her plan wanted asylum seekers to be sent to Nauru instead, as they were in the past before the isolated camps there were scuttled over human rights concerns. As more boats showed up on Australia's shores, public pressure mounted to return to “offshore processing,” or holding asylum seekers elsewhere.
Both plans share the same goal: trying to dissuade refugees from risking their lives to reach Australia at sea by sending them away from Australia's shores for processing. Refugee activists said that debate was wrongheaded, a cruel way of dodging the country's obligations to help refugees fleeing terror and persecution. Their concerns were echoed by the minority Green Party.
Gillard backed the plan Monday after an expert panel issued a report saying detention centers should be created on Nauru and Papua New Guinea to hold asylum seekers as their cases were weighed. The new report also said plans to partner with Malaysia should continue to be explored.
“This isn’t a day for commenting or for a political scoreboard,” Gillard said Monday at a news conference, announcing that her government was endorsing the recommendations in the report, at least on principle. “This is a day for action and getting things done.”
The expert panel also recommended upping the number of people considered for asylum from 13,750 to 20,000 and restricting the ability of people who arrive by sea to bring their families to join them.
Refugee and human rights groups said Australia was returning to a failed and inhumane plan.
"People languished in Nauru for years out of sight of public and media scrutiny, before ultimately ending up in Australia,” said Graham Thom, refugee spokesperson for Amnesty International. “It is shocking to see the panel favor punitive measures that deliberately hold vulnerable people hostage, separate families and leave them in limbo.”
The plan still needs to pass muster with the Australian legislature, where Gillard said her government would introduce amendments to its existing bill on asylum seekers Tuesday.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: A boat carrying up to 180 asylum seekers is seen in the waters off Christmas Island, Australia. Credit: Indonesian National Search And Rescue Agency