CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia sent the first group of asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea’s remote Manus island on Wednesday, adding a second Pacific nation to its toughened refugee policy designed to stop a steady flow of refugee boats.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen also announced new rules for asylum seekers who make it to Australia’s mainland, saying they could be kept on rolling temporary visas for up to five years, even if they are accepted as refugees.
The changes were condemned by the Greens party and human rights groups, both long-term critics of offshore detention on Manus and the Pacific island nation of Nauru, which argue that the policy in neither a deterrent nor humane.
“The fact is deterrence doesn’t work. You can’t be as cruel as the circumstances from which people are running away,” Greens leader Christine Milne told reporters.
“What we are seeing is a real erosion of who we are as a decent people, as a country of a fair go.”
Australia revived its so-called “Pacific Solution” refugee policy in August, announcing it would send boat arrivals to detention on Manus Island and Nauru, where they could wait up to five years with no guarantee of final settlement in Australia.
The policy was aimed at stopping a flood of refugee boats from Indonesia to Australia’s Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island, after a series of boat disasters which have killed more than 1,000 people since 2001.
But more than 3,000 asylum seekers have arrived by boat since the new policy was unveiled.
Bowen said the government was determined to deter boat arrivals and stop the use of people smugglers, who ferry people from Indonesia to Christmas Island, often in overcrowded and leaky fishing boats.
“No one should doubt this government’s resolve to breaking the people smugglers’ business model and save lives at sea,” he said.
Bowen said the first group of 19 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka and Iran, including four children, had arrived on Manus island on Wednesday.
When fully operating, Manus will house around 600 asylum seekers, while around 1,500 will be detained on Nauru, where the first wave of asylum seekers is living in a tent city while permanent accommodation is built.
The new visa rules for refugees and asylum seekers on the mainland means those accepted in Australia may have to wait for five years before they can work or sponsor family members to join them in Australia.
Australia’s Human Rights Commission has expressed serious concerns about offshore detention, while rights group Amnesty International on Wednesday said conditions on Nauru were “completely unacceptable”.