Australia remained adamant its asylum-seeker policy was working despite another boat sinking and nearly 3,000 arrivals since the ruling Labor party announced a new hardline stance last month.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who is trailing in the opinion polls to conservative rival Tony Abbott ahead of September 7 elections, has gambled his fortunes on a plan to send boatpeople to Papua New Guinea for processing and resettlement.
While it has slowed the flow of people-smuggling boats, nearly 3,000 asylum-seekers have arrived by sea since the so-called “PNG Solution” was announced on July 19.
Barely 300 have so far been transferred to the poverty-stricken Pacific nation.
”There is no doubt that it is having an impact,” Immigration Minister Tony Burke, who has previously cited widespread evidence from Indonesia that asylum-seekers were demanding their money back from people-smugglers, told ABC television late Tuesday.
”Week on week there has been a trajectory downward [in the number of people arriving in Australia by boat].”
But he admitted people-smugglers have recently put on “a surge”.
“In the last few days, some of the smuggling operations have tried to put together a bit of a surge and to see if they can overwhelm the current system,” he said.
More than 400 asylum-seekers aboard three boats have arrived since Sunday, while five people are presumed dead after another vessel foundered en route to Australia’s Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island on Tuesday.
A major disaster was averted when Australian rescuers responded to the boat’s call for help and plucked 106 people to safety.
The latest incident came as Burke and Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr took part in talks in Jakarta aimed at finding a regional solution to the boatpeople issue.
Officials from major countries of origin, such as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, were represented. But the summit was marred by Iran’s decision not to attend, a major blow as it is the biggest single source nation of asylum-seekers heading to Australia.
In a comment piece on its front page, The Australian newspaper claimed Rudd’s policy had failed practically and politically.
“The object of the prime minister’s July 19 announcement was to frighten people off setting to sea in leaky boats to seek asylum in Australia, so as to restore immigration control and stop deaths at sea,” said the Rupert Murdoch-owned broadsheet.
“It has not worked.”
Media tycoon Murdoch, who was born in Australia and is seen as an influential force in the country’s politics, has made it clear he wants Abbott to win the election.
Abbott himself has pledged his own crackdown that would see all refugees put on three-year temporary visas and forced into a work-for-welfare programme without rights to family reunion, appeal or permanent residency.
Though they come in relatively small numbers by global standards refugees are a sensitive political issue in Australia and border security has featured prominently in election races since 2001. AFP