Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard yesterday defended her decision to send asylum-seekers arriving by boat to Pacific islands, saying it was a “tough” policy but could save lives.
Canberra’s plans to reopen shuttered camps on Papua New Guinea’s remote Manus Island and on Nauru have prompted criticism from rights advocates who have described it as a backward step.
It also represents an about-face by the Labor Party, which abandoned the policy after winning power in 2007, after complaints people had languished for years on the islands before being resettled under the previous government.
“Yes, this is tough policy. And I understand for many people that it’s hard for them, that it’s emotionally hard for them — I’ve seen that written on the faces of some of my Labor colleagues,” Gillard said.
“With respect, the feelings of me or any Labor member are a second order issue, indeed a hundredth order issue, compared with saving lives at sea,” she said.
Gillard could not say how long people would wait on Nauru or Manus before being resettled, but admitted it could be for an “extended period of time.”
Australia has struggled to cope with a record influx of boatpeople this year, many originally from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq who make their way to Australia via Asia.
The government hopes the prospect of years in detention on remote Pacific islands will deter asylum-seekers from attempting the dangerous sea voyage which has cost hundreds of lives over the past decade.
However, it admits that current facilities at Manus and Nauru, which can cater to 600 and 1,500 people respectively, are so run down they are not yet suitable for use.
Rights activists have expressed alarm at the policy, saying it appears discriminatory because asylum-seekers arriving by boat will be processed offshore but those who come by plane will be processed in Australia.
“Australia’s new offshore processing law is a giant step backward in the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers,” Bill Frelick from the US-based Human Rights Watch said.
“Australia again seeks to shunt desperate boat people to remote camps, perhaps for years, to punish them for arriving uninvited by sea,” he said.
Graham Thom, from Amnesty International, said the numbers of boatpeople coming to Australia — more than 7,500 this year — were small by international standards and the issue was essentially a political question.
Thom said he was concerned the policy was an “out-of-mind, out-of-sight solution.”
The government moved to reintroduce off-shore processing after an independent panel it commissioned recommended it as a disincentive to people-smuggling following a series of fatal sinkings.
Gillard has said she accepts all of the report’s recommendations in principle, including lifting the annual humanitarian intake to 20,000.