CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia's prime minister warned Friday that all refugees who arrive in the country by boat will be resettled on the island nation of Papua New Guinea, a policy shift that rights groups immediately condemned.
The move, described by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as "very hard line," aims to deter an escalating number of asylum seekers who travel to Australia in rickety fishing boats from poor, war-torn homelands through other countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
The growing influx is a major political problem for Rudd's Labor Party, which is the clear underdog in elections expected within months.
"From now on, any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees," Rudd told reporters after signing a pact with Prime Minister Peter O'Neill of Papua New that will enable Australia to deport refugees there.
The policy was condemned by refugee and human rights advocates.
The new plan "shows not only a complete disregard for asylum seekers but absolute contempt for legal and moral obligations," said Graeme McGregor, Amnesty International's refugee campaign coordinator for Australia.
David Manne, executive director of Australia's Refugee and Immigration Legal Center, described it as "a fundamental repudiation of our commitment to protecting refugees."
Manne described Papua New Guinea — which is near Australia in the southwestern Pacific Ocean — as an unsafe country where violence is widespread and serious human rights abuses are a daily occurrence.
Rudd said the policy met Australia's obligations under the United Nations' Refugee Convention. Papua New Guinea is a signatory of the same convention that sets out refugees' rights.
The rules will apply to asylum seekers who arrive from Friday.
Asylum seekers who arrive by boat would continue to have their refugee claims assessed in Australia and at detention camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
Australia would help genuine refugees settle in Papua New Guinea — a diverse tribal society of more than 800 languages and 7 million people who are mostly subsistence farmers. Those who are found not to be genuine refugees could return to their home countries or another country other than Australia.
By Friday, 15,728 asylum seekers had arrived by boat this year. The arrivals are on track to exceed last year's total of 17,202 as well as the government's target of resettling 20,000 refugees a year.
Iran has become the biggest source country. Asylum seekers from Iran last year accounted for one in seven arrivals. This year, they make up one in three.
Indonesia announced Thursday it will stop issuing visas on arrival to Iranians in a bid to stem the flow to Australia.
Rudd said his government would negotiate with other neighbors in a bid to restrict visa access from other source countries. Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Vietnam, Iraq, Bangladesh and Myanmar are the next largest sources of asylum seekers arriving on Australian shores.
O'Neill set no limit on how many asylum seekers his country was prepared to accept.
"It is not going to be easy, but of course Papua New Guinea is blessed with a large land mass and a very small population so there is enough assistance that we can give to the Australian government," O'Neill said.
Australia is PNG's former colonial master and is now its largest source of foreign aid. In return for accepting the refugees, Rudd said Australia will redevelop a hospital in PNG's second largest city and reform the country's university sector.
The new policy echoes that of a previous Australian government that in 2001 also pledged that asylum seekers who arrived by boat would never be accepted by Australia. That policy all but stopped the asylum seeker traffic.
Some refugees spent years in an Australian-run detention camp on the tiny Pacific atoll of Nauru before Australia eventually resettled them because no other country would.
A protest by 150 asylum seekers on Nauru turned violent Friday with several demonstrators and their guards injured, Australia's Immigration Department said in a statement.
The department said the unrest was unrelated to the new policy, which was announced later.
Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini in Jakarta contributed to this report.