The opposition coalition on Thursday promised to pay other countries to take asylum seekers off Australia’s hands if it wins elections this year.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott made Australia’s response to a burgeoning number of asylum seekers traveling to Australia by boat an election issue by launching his conservative coalition’s new policy. An election date has yet to set.
Its centerpiece is a revival of the so-called Pacific solution in which Australia paid impoverished island neighbors Nauru and Papua New Guinea to keep asylum seekers in detention centers.
The message to asylum seekers was that they would never set foot on the Australian mainland. However, many were eventually settled in Australia after sometimes spending years in offshore camps.
Human rights groups attacked the policy as punitive when the previous coalition government introduced it in 2001, months ahead of an election.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd scrapped the policy when his center-left Labor Party won government in 2007, but he continues to keep most boat arrivals in a crowded camp on the remote Australian Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island while their refugees claims are assessed.
Abbott has blamed the government’s softening of Australia’s asylum seeker stance for more than 4,000 people arriving by boat in the past year, many of them Afghans and Sri Lankans who paid Indonesian people smugglers to ship them to Australia.
“I am a big risk to people smugglers,” Abbott told reporters. “If I get elected, people smugglers will go out of business.”
Abbott declined to identify the countries he planned to negotiate with or estimate how much they would be paid to house the overflow of asylum seekers from Christmas island.
Rudd attempted to slow the flow earlier this year by imposing a three-month freeze on processing asylum claims from Sri Lankans and Afghans – a development condemned on Thursday in the annual report of London-based human rights organization Amnesty International.
Abbott also promised to revive another measure scrapped by Rudd – temporary protection visas.
Under the visas, bona fide refugees would have to prove after three years that they would still face persecution if they returned to their homelands.
Under the current permanent visas, asylum seekers only have to prove their refugee status once.
During their temporary stay, refugees would also have to work for their welfare benefits, an opposition statement said.
Human Resources Minister Chris Bowen said refugees were already required to work, study English or train to gain employment skills.
The work obligations “are actually rules that we introduced, toughened from the previous government’s arrangements,” Bowen told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
Arguments about which side of politics is tougher on asylum seekers have raged in Australian election campaigns since the first wave of Vietnamese refugees fled to Australia from the aftermath of Vietnam War in the late 1970s.