CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia announced tough new measures to stem a dramatic increase in refugee boats from Indonesia on Friday, with a deal to send all boat arrivals to Papua New Guinea (PNG) for assessment and eventual settlement.
The human rights group Amnesty International condemned the measures, saying Australia was shirking its moral obligations and turning its back on the world’s most vulnerable people.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is facing a tough election race and immigration has become a contentious issue.
A few hours after Rudd made the announcement the Immigration Department reported a riot at its detention and processing center on the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru.
The Immigration Department said the disturbance, involving about 150 of the 545 male inmates at the center, began before Rudd spoke in Australia. An unspecified number of detainees had breached the fence and several staff and detainees were being treated for injuries, a spokeswoman for the department said.
More than 15,000 asylum seekers have arrived by boat in Australian territory this year, igniting a heated debate on refugee policy and prompting opposition accusations that the ruling Labor government is soft on border protection.
Australian elections are due within weeks and Rudd, who has revived Labor’s support, needs to take tough action on asylum seekers to have a chance of winning key seats in western Sydney, where anger at the boat arrivals is a major issue.
“From now on, any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees,” Rudd told reporters, adding anyone assessed to be a refugee would be permanently settled in PNG.
Rudd also said Indonesia was poised to toughen visa arrangements for people from Iran, a major source country of those trying to make it to Australia by boat, by ending arrangements for Iranians to get visas on arrival there.
Since 2001, about 1,000 people have died while trying to reach Australia’s Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island on unseaworthy boats. As many as 200 died when a boat sank off the coast of East Java in December 2011, while 50 were killed when their boat crashed into rocks at Christmas Island in December 2010.
“CLOSED THE DOOR”
Amnesty International condemned said Australia had shown contempt for its legal and moral obligations.
“Mark this day in history as the day Australia decided to turn its back on the world’s most vulnerable people, closed the door and threw away the key,” said Amnesty’s regional refugee coordinator, Graeme McGregor.
Australia currently detains all boat arrivals, and last year toughened its refugee policy by reopening mothballed detention and processing centers on PNG’s remote Manus Island and in Nauru.
A spokeswoman for the Immigration Department said late on Friday that Nauruan police and the private firm that runs the detention center, Wilson Security, were working to contain the trouble there.
“The situation is tense and efforts continue to restore order to the facility,” she said, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
The Refugee Action Coalition said the protest had been building for several days amid unhappiness over the slow processing of asylum claims.
Under the new policy, Australia will fund a major expansion of the Manus Island detention center to take up to 3,000 people instead of a planned 600.
The plan comes a week after the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), found major shortcomings with the Manus center.
“Cramped living quarters were observed, while asylum-seekers reported issues with the heat, privacy, hygiene and access to medical services,” the UNHCR said.
UNHCR data shows Australia received 16,000 asylum claims in 2012, which is a small proportion of the 469,000 applications worldwide.
Australia received 12,400 asylum applications between January and May this year, double the number for the same period in 2012. Iran accounted for 2,500 asylum claims, or five times more than in the same period in 2012.
Rudd said he had spoken to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and would convene a meeting of transit and settlement countries to review global refugee arrangements.
Rudd toppled former leader Julia Gillard to return as prime minister on June 26 after opinion polls showed the governing Labor Party on track for a big election defeat.
The policy changes are the last major issue for Rudd before he calls the elections, after he last week changed Gillard’s climate policies to scrap a carbon tax and bring forward a carbon trading scheme a year earlier than planned.
While opinion polls show a surge back towards Labor after Rudd’s return, the conservative opposition is still favorite to win the election.
Additional reporting by Jane Wardell. Editing by Robert Birsel