BRISBANE, Australia — Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has announced that any asylum seeker who arrives by boat without a visa will have "no chance" of being resettled here as a refugee.
Instead, Rudd said in Brisbane on Friday, they will be sent directly to neighboring Papua New Guinea and its Manus Island detention center.
The surprise announcement came as Australians — increasingly divided on the issue of asylum seekers — begin to consider who they will vote for in a general election due before the end of the year.
During a joint press conference with PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, broadcast live by several TV news outlets, Rudd said:
“From now on, any asylum-seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees. ... If they are found to be genuine refugees they will be resettled in Papua New Guinea — an emerging economy with a strong future, a robust democracy which is also a signatory to the United Nations refugees convention."
Those found not to be "genuine refugees" would likely be repatriated to their country of origin or sent to a safe third country, he added.
Australia's ABC TV news said that 17,202 asylum seekers had arrived in Australia by boat in 2012, while so far a further 15,610 had either made it to Australian waters or attempted the perilous crossing from Sri Lanka, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian nations in 2013.
Rudd said that Australia would pay PNG an unspecified sum under the so-called Regional Settlement Arrangement, and that the scheme would be reviewed after 12 months.
In announcing what the Fairfax media described as "the strongest line a modern Labor prime minister has taken against people smugglers," Rudd said his intent was to "combat the scourge of people smuggling."
However, human rights activists have called the move heartless and against the spirit of the refugee convention.
The ABC cited human rights advocate David Manne as pointing out that Australia hosted "only 0.3 percent of refugees worldwide and yet, what we see here is a policy designed not only to deter asylum seekers from coming and seeking refuge in Australia, but one that also proposes to shift our responsibilities on to others, to not shoulder the responsibility of protecting refugees but to shift it and to deflect it on to others."
And Fairfax cited Christine Milne, the leader of Australia's Greens Party, which wields crucial power in Australia's parliament, as saying it was "absolutely immoral" for a rich nation to "dump thousands of vulnerable people into an impoverished country."
She described the Manus Island detention center as "Australia's gulag in PNG."
However, the man who will face Rudd at the election, leader of the conservative opposition coalition Tony Abbott, expressed qualified support.
He said: "I welcome it but it won't work under Mr. Rudd," and labeled the announcement a ploy to win votes.
Earlier this week, Indonesia agreed to a request from Rudd to make it harder for people from Iran to enter the country in order to travel to Australia by boat.
Friday's announcement reportedly sparked a riot involving 150 asylum seekers at another "offshore" detention center, in the small Pacific nation of Nauru.