Australia says bolder refugee policy needed as arrivals rise

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A protester holds a placard in the rain during a protest against the Australian Government asylum seeker policy in Melbourne on July 20, 2013.

Australia's decision to refuse entry to refugees arriving by boat and send them to Papua New Guinea is necessary as the number of asylum seekers making the journey soars, the government said.

"The spike makes it unavoidable," Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said yesterday in an interview with Sky News. "It could rise further as people smugglers really close in and make a financial killing. This is what refugee advocates, many of them, and the Greens party can't accept. The nature of the problem has changed, and that requires a new, bolder solution."

A boat with 81 passengers that was stopped July 20 in waters off northwest Australia will be the first to face Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's policy announced the previous day. Five people have drowned since July 12 in incidents at sea between Australia and Indonesia, and the issue has eroded support for the ruling Labor Party amid pledges by opposition leader Tony Abbott to "stop the boats."

Rudd, meeting with his caucus in Sydney today as he seeks to change Labor party rules to prevent further mid-term leadership challenges, has made asylum seekers a priority before elections that must be held by the end of November. Abbott has called the asylum seeker plan "a pre-election fix."

Australia put a A$200,000 ($184,000) bounty on people smugglers, offering rewards for information leading to convictions and targeting criminal groups stretching from Australia to nations like Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, the government said yesterday.

Ad campaign

Weekend newspapers in Australia carried the government's full-page advertisements with the message "if you come here by boat without a visa, you won't be settled in Australia" and a photo of a fishing boat at sea.

"Any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being resettled in Australia," Rudd told reporters in Brisbane July 19. "If they're found to be genuine refugees they'll be resettled in Papua New Guinea. I understand this is a very hard-line decision."

The new policy can withstand any legal challenge, said Carr, who estimated that about 3,000 asylum seekers are arriving by boat each month with the number potentially surging to 40,000 to 50,000 people annually. The agreement with Papua New Guinea didn't put a limit on the number of people who could be sent there.

The country's Greens party has described the Labor plan as cruel, while Abbott and Scott Morrison, the opposition immigration spokesman, have said it is light on detail.

"˜Back door'

"I don't hold it against anyone wanting to come to Australia but you've got to come the right way, not the wrong way," Abbott told reporters today in Melbourne. "You've got to come in through the front door, not the back door. This particular deal is unraveling before our very eyes. It's not legally binding."

Almost all of the passengers on the boat that was stopped July 20, made up of single men and families, are originally from Iran, Immigration Minister Tony Burke said that day at a news conference carried by the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Two boats were intercepted July 19 off Australia, one before the news conference to announce the refugee policy and another during the event, Burke said.

Nauru riot

Asylum seekers at a detention center in Nauru burned buildings to the ground, causing about A$60 million in damage, after a protest escalated into a riot on July 19, the ABC said.

Successive Australian governments have struggled with boat arrivals from Southeast Asia since the late 1970s, when then-Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser granted entry to refugees in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Last year, then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard reopened processing centers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, a return to former Prime Minister John Howard's policy of holding applicants in offshore processing camps or remote onshore centers.

Australia will expand the detention center on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island about fivefold to house some 3,000 asylum seekers, Burke said July 19.

Sinking boats

More than 800 people, many from war-torn countries that have used Indonesia as a stepping stone to seek asylum, have died en route to the country since October 2009, according to the Department of Immigration.

Rudd is seeking to build a platform ahead of the election, announcing changes to policies put in place by Gillard that proved unpopular with voters, including a pricing system for carbon. Since Rudd ousted Gillard last month in a party-room vote, Labor has erased a deficit in opinion polls to Abbott's Liberal-National coalition.

Protesters rallied against Rudd's changes to his refugee policy outside the building in Sydney today where caucus met to decide whether to support planned party reforms.

Under Rudd's proposed guidelines, votes from Labor's membership will be weighted 50-50 with votes by caucus members when deciding the party leadership. The changes would also allow a vote after a leader resigned, at their request, or when at least 75 percent of the caucus signed a petition requesting a ballot because the leader had brought the party into disrepute.

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