As elections loom in Australia, prime minister shuts door on refugees

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced Friday that all refugees arriving by boat will be sent to Papua New Guinea – a hardline stance he hopes will win votes. 

Rick Rycroft/AP
Australia Prime Minister Kevin Rudd speaks to the media following a leadership ballot for the Labour Party at parliament in Canberra, Australia, June 26. Rudd announced Friday that all asylum seekers arriving in the country by boat will be sent to Papua New Guinea.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced Friday that all asylum seekers arriving in the country by boat will henceforth be turned away and instead processed in neighboring Papua New Guinea, solidifying his hardline stance on immigration ahead of upcoming elections. 

But no sooner had he made his announcement, news broke of a major riot on the remote Pacific island of Nauru where more than 150 asylum seekers have been protesting for weeks over delays in having their applications for refugee status in Australian assessed.

There were conflicting reports as to whether Mr. Rudd’s announcement triggered the riot. Quoted by local media, guards at the processing center where asylum seekers are held, said 300 of the 500 detainees had escaped and that parts of the complex were on fire. There were reports that at least 15 guards have been injured and that a number of interpreters and medical staff were held hostage for an hour before being released. 

With local police overwhelmed by the scale of the disturbance, one Nauruan politician went on television calling for any able-bodied volunteers to head for the processing center.

Australians have grown used to seeing riots at detention centers for asylum seekers such as the those on Nauru and the Australian territory of Christmas Island, the main disembarkation point for boat people sailing from Indonesia. The debate over how to stop the arrivals has polarized the electorate.

Refugee advocates see the latest riot on Nauru as a taste of things to come, now that Australia will be sending asylum seekers to the small island of Manus, off the northern coast of Papua New Guinea, for processing. Those found to be genuine refugees will be settled in that country. Those rejected will be sent home or to a third country.

“If Papua New Guinea wants to see into the future, it should look at what is what is happening on Nauru right now,” says Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition.

Mr. Rintoul says the prime minister’s announcement today that Australia was closing the door for good on asylum seekers was a sign that “he would do absolutely anything to gain electoral advantage over the opposition." Rudd is expected to call an election on Sunday, using his new hardline approach to dealing with boat arrivals as one of his signature policies.

Under pressure from refugee advocacy groups, Australia’s immigration department earlier this month agreed to remove women and children from the detention facility on Manus Island because it was deemed to be "too remote" and under-resourced. Now the facility on Manus will be expanded from its current capacity of 600 to 3,000 people under a deal reached between Rudd and Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill this week.

But if today’s riot on Nauru is any indication, such a policy is fraught with danger. Papua New Guinea suffers from entrenched poverty, high levels of crime, rampant corruption, and poor standards of healthcare. Burdening the country with the added problem of resettling thousands of refugees is likely to harm the host country as well as those whose desperation led them to flee their homelands in the first place.

The gamble may pay off for Rudd by securing him a second term as prime minister, but it could come at a high cost for Australian foreign relations in years to come. 

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