The government’s hardline policy to process and resettle all asylum seekers arriving by boat in Papua New Guinea is already having an effect, Immigration Minister Tony Burke says.
A boat carrying 81 asylum seekers was intercepted on the weekend but Mr Burke says their journey started before Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced the new policy late on Friday.
Under the deal, if those sent to PNG are found to be genuine refugees, they will be settled in PNG or somewhere else, but not in Australia.
Mr Burke says reports from people smugglers and asylum seekers indicate the message is already getting through.
“Does this unilaterally mean we can give a date on when boats stop? No,” he told ABC radio today.
“But certainly, be in no doubt the product that people smugglers are selling is no longer available.”
Mr Burke says comments from PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill about his country taking as many refugees as capacity allows had been misinterpreted by some as meaning there is a cap on numbers.
Rather, the Australian government will continue to increase PNG’s capacity, he says.
Children and families will eventually be sent to PNG for processing, once the standards in the centre meet Mr Burke’s requirements.
The Minister said Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s response to the plan yesterday was extraordinary.
“I could not believe the way he and (his immigration spokesman) Scott Morrison stood up and tried to send a message out to Australia and therefore to the people involved in these operations that it’s still okay to come,” Mr Burke said.
“If people take Tony Abbott at his word and decide to test our resolve, they will find out that we are resolved to follow through on this policy.”
Mr Burke’s office later said women and children arriving on boats would be held in detention on Christmas Island until the PNG facilities were up to standard, and would not be settled in Australia.
However, opposition frontbencher Christopher Pyne said Labor’s policy would end up with women and children being “customers of preference” for people smugglers.
“We’re sending people to Manus Island where there’s a tent city … where they’re bringing women and children home, where it’s so infected with malaria that you can’t inoculate children against it,” he told Sky News.
“Their claim that if you come to Australia by boat you will not be settled here has turned out to be a grotesque lie.”
ALP National President Jenny McAllister said the plan would provoke discussion among party members.
“I’d be surprised if anybody felt entirely comfortable about everything that we’re doing,” she told the ABC.
“But I think that those people in our organisation looking for compassionate responses to asylum seekers will be pleased by the possibility that we could move to again increase our humanitarian intake to 27,000 per year.”
Climate Change Minister Mark Butler, from Labor’s left faction, has acknowledged a level of discomfort within Labor ranks about the harsh policy.
“There would be people within the Labor movement and the Labor party and the broader community who would feel uncomfortable with this,” he told Sky News yesterday.
Mr Butler said despite this discomfort, there was a recognition that the big numbers arriving, the ruthlessness of people smugglers and the numbers being lost at sea, required a different approach.
Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul has described the PNG plan as “shocking” and said Labor leaders should think again if they thought the party could “slide back into office over the broken lives and the bodies of asylum seekers”.