SYDNEY – Tony Abbott, the conservative front-runner who looks set to become Australia’s next prime minister, declared that “this is our country” as he unveiled a tough new temporary visa policy Friday that would strip boat people of basic rights.
Abbott, who opinion polls show is on track to win the Sept. 7 national elections, said he plans a return to the punitive refugee policies of the former conservative administration of John Howard, also flagging an abolition of appeal rights for failed asylum claims.
“This is our country and we determine who comes here,” Abbott told reporters, deliberately harking back to the ruthless stance of veteran Liberal-National coalition leader Howard.
Abbott’s policy will see the 32,000 boat people currently awaiting processing by Australia, and any future arrivals, placed on three-year temporary protection visas if they are found to be genuine refugees.
They will be forced into an indefinite work-for-welfare program, denied permanent residency or family reunion rights and stripped of any appeal avenues over their refugee claim.
Abbott has already announced plans for military-led patrols off Australia’s northwest coast, where people-smuggling ships typically make their way from Indonesia and Sri Lanka, vowing to turn the boats back.
His latest policy was condemned as cruel by refugee activists and the left-wing Greens party, who described it as posturing on the sensitive political issue.
“This is a Tony Abbott stunt to thump his chest and look tough,” Greens Sen. Sarah Hanson-Young told reporters. “There is no national emergency, there is a humanitarian emergency, and nothing Tony Abbott has offered today does anything to deal with that.”
Under Howard’s so-called “Pacific Solution” in the last decade, refugees who arrived on people-smuggling boats were banished to Nauru and Papua New Guinea and held behind razor wire in Spartan detention camps for a prolonged period.
The Asylum Seeker Resource Center, an advocacy and activist group, said that under Abbott, Australia would become the only country in the developed world to deny refugees the right of appeal, accusing both major parties of effectively abandoning the U.N. Refugee Convention.
The ruling Labor Party unwound many of Howard’s policies after it took office in 2007 in favor of a more humanitarian approach, but successive years of record boat people arrivals saw it return to offshore processing in the Pacific and roll out an even tougher scheme.
Under Labor’s current policy — launched in July in a bid to stem the ever-growing tide of asylum seekers — all unauthorized maritime arrivals are being sent to impoverished Papua New Guinea and Nauru for permanent resettlement, regardless of whether they are found to be refugees.
The hard-line plan, which has been criticized by human rights groups and the United Nations, is already having an effect according to Labor, with people-smuggling clients demanding their money back and the flow of boats slowing.
“In the first week after (Prime Minister) Kevin Rudd announced that change over 1,000 people came to Australia by boat. This week it’s about 300,” Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said.
Immigration Minister Tony Burke said temporary visas did not work as a deterrent last time they were used and denial of appeal avenues will be unlikely to withstand a legal challenge.
“People that get on boats under our government’s policy don’t get Australian visas at all,” Burke said, describing Abbott’s pledges as “irrelevant.”
“So the only possible reason to make an announcement like they’ve made today is for a political desire to look tough and mean just for the hell of it,” he said.
Refugees are a major election issue in Australia, even though they arrive in relatively small numbers by global standards. They accounted for just 3 percent of the world’s total asylum applications in 2012, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.