Australia’s top diplomat on Monday defended a new, tougher policy on asylum seekers who emigrate to Australia from Asia’s poor countries and conflict zones, even as he laid out how his country could capitalize on the growth of the continent’s middle class.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said the plans to send asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the remote Pacific island of Nauru for screening was designed to deter human smuggling and would be more humane for the would-be refugees.
He said Australia would increase its annual “humanitarian intake” of refugees to 20,000 per year — up from about 14,000 — which he said was exceeded only by the US.
However, human rights groups have criticized the policy as discriminatory. It was announced last month and is reminiscent to one adopted by the previous conservative government. Human Rights Watch warned that asylum seekers arriving by boat could spend years in remote camps as their cases are processed. Those arriving by plane will still be screened in Australia.
Thousands of asylum seekers from countries including Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka have attempted dangerous sea voyages from Indonesia to Australia and hundreds have died in the sea crossing over the past year. Late last month, nearly 100 vanished in choppy seas off Indonesia after their overcrowded boat sank.
Australia says the new policy will discourage new arrivals.
“We believe this will send a powerful message,” Carr told a lunch of business people in New York.
Carr was speaking in place of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who pulled out of the event because of an unspecified health problem. They are both in town for the annual gathering of world leaders for the UN General Assembly.
Australia is lobbying for one of the rotating 10 non-permanent seats in the UN Security Council for next year and 2014.
In his address, Carr gave an upbeat message about the Australian economy, which escaped the worst of the global downturn, due in no small part to its natural resource exports to China.
Carr played down the impact China’s current economic slowdown would have on its demand for Australian coal and iron. He noted growing demand for Australian natural gas from nations including, Japan, South Korea and Malaysia.
However, he said in the years ahead, Asian economies would be looking less for raw materials than for goods and services to meet the demands of the continent’s fast-growing middle class.
“We’ll need Asia-literate policies and Asia-capable people,” Carr said, adding that Australia must be ready to make and sell “the things that Chinese and Indian and Indonesian and Thai consumers are buying in 2033.”