By ROD McGUIRK, Associated Press Writer Thu Apr 13, 2:08 AM ET
CANBERRA, Australia - The government will send all asylum seekers arriving by boat on Australia’s mainland to island detention camps, the country’s immigration minister announced Thursday.
The move was seen as an attempt to avoid further inflaming tensions with Indonesia after 42 people from its Papua province were granted refugee status.
Prime Minister John Howard denied the new policy was designed to appease Jakarta, though he added that if it helped improve relations it would be a "very good thing."
"It’s not done as a concession to Indonesia," he told reporters in Sydney. "It is designed to regularize our policy in this area."
Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said Canberra will also boost patrols of waters off its northern coast that separate Australia from Indonesia.
"Any claims to refugee status will be properly assessed at an offshore location, as they have been in previous years," Vanstone said in a statement. "People found to be refugees will remain offshore until resettlement to a third country is arranged."
Under a policy introduced in 2001, asylum seekers arriving on outlying Australian islands were sent to detention camps on impoverished South Pacific neighbors Nauru and Papua New Guinea and the Australian Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island.
But those who reached the mainland were deemed entitled to Australia’s full legal rights - allowing them to launch appeals which could take years to resolve. Now, even those arriving on the mainland by boat will be sent to island detention camps.
Indonesia’s government demanded a review of Australian refugee procedures after the 42 Papuans who arrived on Australia’s coast by dugout canoe in January were accepted as refugees last month.
Many in Jakarta saw the decision as tacit acknowledgment of Indonesian human rights abuses in Papua and a signal of Australian support for a long-running separatist movement on the half-island province.
Refugee advocates and opposition lawmakers attacked the proposed new policy as an overreaction to the furor over the Papuan refugees.
David Mann, from the Refugee and Immigration Legal Center, said it breached Australia’s international obligations.
"This is an extreme and alarming development, and a radical and very dangerous overreaction," Mann told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. "Under international law, people have a clear-cut, fundamental right to seek asylum in Australia, and to have their case for protection fully and properly heard in Australia."
Opposition Labor Party Leader Kim Beazley accused the government of buckling to another nation.
"The danger of letting it be known that your policy can be changed at the behest of anyone else is that they will think of a few other policies that they might like to change as well," Beazley told reporters.
Vanstone said that despite the changes Australia will continue to deal with asylum seekers in line with its obligations under U.N. rules.
"The new measures emphasize the government’s strong commitment to effective border control while ensuring we continue to meet our international obligations," she said.