Australia yesterday said it had begun sending boat people to poverty-stricken Papua New Guinea (PNG) because so many have arrived in recent weeks that its existing Pacific island camps are full.
Canberra announced in August that refugees arriving by boat would be sent offshore and almost 400 are now being held on the tiny island nation of Nauru, despite Amnesty International’s criticism of conditions there as “completely unacceptable.”
Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the first transfer of asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea went ahead on Tuesday, with four children and 15 adults belonging to seven families from Sri Lanka and Iran sent to the country’s remote Manus Island, but he acknowledged that, given the thousands of boat people who have arrived since the government announced its new policy, it would not be possible to transfer them all to Nauru or Manus Island in the immediate future.
“Accordingly, some of these people will be processed in the Australian community,” Bowen said in a statement.
The center-left Labor government has struggled to deal with an influx of asylum seekers arriving by boat, with more than 7,000 landing since the tough new policy was announced. A record of more than 15,500 have arrived this year.
Bowen said transfers to Nauru and Manus Island would continue, but the government would also begin releasing some people who arrived by boat into the Australian community on bridging visas.
Consistent with the government’s aim of giving “no advantage” to people who bypass regular immigration channels and travel to Australia by boat, they will have no work rights and only limited financial help.
Canberra has defended its decision to process boat people offshore in an attempt to stop them risking their lives on the journey to Australia, during which scores have died, and insists all are treated humanely, but Amnesty International’s Graham Thom, who has spent two days on Nauru, said the conditions the refugees are living in have prompted hunger strikes, suicide attempts and self-harm on the island.
He said the 387 men on Nauru are living in tents, in some cases with up to 13 other men, which leak when it rains and became very hot in the summer.
“In the front of their minds is the fact that they’re not being processed, the uncertainty that’s facing them is clearly having an impact on their mental health,” Thom said, according to an ABC report.