SYDNEY – Australia on Wednesday said its new hard-line stance on boat people was working with widespread evidence from Indonesia that asylum seekers were demanding their money back from people smugglers.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd struck a deal with his Papua New Guinea counterpart, Peter O’Neill, last month that asylum seekers arriving in Australia on unauthorized boats would be sent to the poor Pacific nation for processing and resettlement there — even if judged to be genuine refugees.
The agreement formally took effect Aug. 1, when the first group of mainly Afghan and Iranian men were dispatched to PNG and Immigration Minister Tony Burke said the intelligence he was receiving was that the deterrent policy was working.
“We have widespread examples from on the ground in Indonesia of people asking for their money back from people smugglers,” said Burke of the sensitive political issue that is set for a key role in Australia’s national election Sept. 7.
“There is no doubt that the message is getting through. From everything that’s been attempted in the past, it’s become clear that the only way to affect people smugglers is to take their product away and to take their customers away,” he said.
“The regional resettlement arrangements take the product away from people smugglers, and the information getting out is that we are now at the beginnings of their customers being taken away as well,” he added.
With no chance of being settled in Australia, people are starting to realize “that what they have paid for is no longer available to them” with a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign starting to hit home, Burke said.
The so-called PNG solution, which Canberra drafted to help stem a record influx of boat arrivals that has topped 17,000 so far this year, has been criticized by refugee advocates and human rights groups.
It is set to cost Canberra about 1.1 billion Australian dollars ($980 million) over four years, with existing facilities on PNG’s Manus Island, where the refugee processing camp is located, requiring significant expansion. In exchange, aid has been boosted to the poverty-stricken country.
Under the system, those who pay people smugglers for passage on unauthorized boats will either be resettled in PNG or Nauru, returned to their country of origin or settled in another state in which they have a right of residence.
In the week since arrivals had started being transferred to Manus Island, Burke said a “very significant number” were now in talks with the International Organization of Migration to arrange their travel back home.