Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced Friday that his country will start sending people who arrive by boat seeking asylum to Papua New Guinea, under a deal signed between the two countries.
The so-called Regional Settlement Arrangement aims to address a surge in arrivals by people who traverse the Indian Ocean in hazardous, overcrowded boats.
“From now on, any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees,” Rudd said Friday at a press conference. “If they are found to be genuine refugees, they will be resettled in Papua New Guinea, an emerging economy with a strong future.”
The announcement also comes ahead of federal elections that are tentatively scheduled for Sept. 14. The subject of illegal migration will be in the spotlight as Rudd, a member of the center-left Labor Party, will seek a third term against a coalition headed by Opposition Leader Tony Abbot of the center-right Liberal Party of Australia.
People found attempting to enter Australia by boat will be processed at Christmas Island to determine if they are “genuine refugees” or economic illegal immigrants who could return to their home countries, or, says Rudd, be sent to “a safe country other than Australia.” Qualified asylum seekers will then be sent to Manus island in Papua New Guinea, for processing. The processing facility at Manus will be expanded to handle 3,000 immigrants at a time, according to the BBC.
Most of immigrants attempting to enter the country by boat are coming from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. A recent uptick in this form of illegal immigration caused Australia last year to re-start a controversial program to send sea-bound immigrants to the remote island of Nauru, northwest of New Guinea, which saw rioting by Iranian refugees at a detention facility on Friday.
"Massive fire broke out from within the camp,” Freelance photographer Clint Deidenang posted on his Twitter feed. “I can see flames and smokes over the tree tops from my position.''
Australia accepts 20,000 refugees a year as part of its official refugee program. Last year, it saw a record 17,200 refugees arrive by boat to claim asylum, according to the country’s Department of Immigration.