The opposition coalition pledged yesterday to pay other countries to take asylum seekers off Australia’s hands if it wins elections this year in a policy aimed at deterring further arrivals.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott made Australia’s response to a burgeoning number of asylum seekers traveling to Australia by boat an election issue by launching his conservative coalition’s new policy. An election date has yet to set.
Its centerpiece is a revival of the so-called “Pacific Solution,” in which Australia paid impoverished island neighbors Nauru and Papua New Guinea to keep asylum seekers in detention centers.
The message to asylum seekers was that they would never set foot on the Australian mainland, but many were eventually settled in Australia after sometimes spending years in offshore camps.
Human rights groups attacked the policy as punitive when the previous coalition government introduced it in 2001, months ahead of an election.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd scrapped the policy when his center-left Labor Party won control of the government in 2007, but he continues to keep most boat arrivals in a crowded camp on the remote Australian Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island while the refugees claims are assessed.
Abbott has blamed the government’s softening of Australia’s asylum seeker stance for more than 4,000 people arriving by boat in the past year, many of them Afghans and Sri Lankans who paid Indonesian people-smugglers to ship them to Australia.
“I am a big risk to people smugglers,” Abbott told reporters. “If I get elected, people smugglers will go out of business.”
Rudd attempted to slow the flow earlier this year by imposing a three-month freeze on processing asylum claims from Sri Lankans and Afghans — a development condemned yesterday in the annual report of London-based human rights organization Amnesty International.