The AFR understands some measures in a pending Australian government crackdown are so severe that any release of detail prior to announcement would have prompted a surge in boat departures. Photo: Reuters
Phillip Coorey, James Massola and Joanna Heath
Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island detention centre will become the primary refugee processing hub in the region, accommodating up to 3000 asylum seekers in a deal expected to be announced on Friday by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill.
The plan, which boosts the centre’s current capacity from 600 people, is part of a raft of policies expected to be unveiled by the federal government to help tackle the growing number of asylum seekers attempting to come to Australia by boat.
The announcement comes after Mr Rudd visited Port Moresby last week and as another asylum seeker boat carrying 121 people was intercepted north east of Christmas Island on Wednesday.
Mr Knight said he would back the plan as long as the Royal Australian Navy took over Lombrum Naval Base and protected local fishing waters from illegal fishing, while he also wanted the Momote airport expanded.
There are currently 215 asylum seekers housed on Manus’ Lombrum naval base.
The plan was revealed as Indonesia prepared to join the fight against people smuggling by announcing a crackdown on issuing visas to Iranians who transit the country en route to Australia.
Following a request issued by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd when he was in Jakarta for talks last week, Indonesia’s Justice and Human Rights Department issued a decree to stop Iranians being issued a visa upon arrival.
Iranians comprise the bulk of what Australian authorities and the government believes to be a significantly increasing proportion of economic migrants – those who come to Australia for economic reasons rather than to flee persecution.
The economic migrants fly into Indonesia, are issued visas, and then take boats to Australia. The Iranian government refuses to take them back, meaning they cannot be forcibly repatriated.
Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described the decision as an “example of good cooperation and I congratulate and thank the Indonesian government for doing what they’ve done”.
“What it will do is stop the transit traffic from Iran, the Middle East to Indonesia, get your visa on arrival and then have already pre-organised a people smuggler to put you on a boat. That will be far more difficult if there is not an automatic transit through Indonesia,” Mr Albanese said.
Finance Minister Penny Wong emphasised the government’s regional approach, and compared it to Mr Abbott’s proposal of turning boats around, which has been described as ‘unilateral’ action.
“There is a regional problem here and the government will continue to work with our region to get the answers that are needed to prevent people getting on leaky boats,” Senator Wong said.
“It confirms the point I was making: you have to have a regional approach, you have to work collaboratively with countries of transit, you have to work collaboratively with Indonesia and Malaysia as well as other nations of our region.”
Major announcement expected
The visa decision comes ahead of a major announcement by Mr Rudd of a suite of measures to crack down on people smuggling.
The Australian Financial Review understands some measures in the package, to be announced Friday or Saturday, are so severe that any release of detail prior to announcement would have prompted a surge in boat departures because the measures will apply immediately upon announcement.
Already, the government has flagged a new detention centre in Papua New Guinea, tougher assessment procedures and, as a longer term measure, it will mount a push in the United Nations to amend the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.
According to ABC News, the government has also sought agreement from neighbouring countries to share the burden of asylum seeker arrivals across the region.
The aim is to allow Australia, as a signatory, more scope in rejecting what it believes to be non-genuine asylum seekers and limiting their rights of appeal.
For more than a year, authorities have spoken of what they call a Tehran-to-Christmas Island package deal, in which people smugglers promise passage to Christmas Island in a number of days in return for cash.
Iranians are among one of 60 nationalities issued 30-day visas upon arrival in Indonesia and comprise more than 10 per cent of those in Indonesia registered with the United Nation’s refugee agency.
The decision by Indonesian minister Amir Syamsuddin represents a significant diplomatic victory for Mr Rudd, who advocates a regional approach as one part of a solution to stopping the burgeoning trade.
Mr Rudd raised the visa issue during his discussions last week with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
The news from Indonesia on Thursday night came hours after Coalition spokesman Scott Morrison said there needed to be “ a war’’ against people smugglers and left open the prospect of Australia withdrawing from the UN convention altogether.
“We will stop the boats because we will respond to the situation that we’re presented with and that is our resolve,” Mr Morrison said.
“This is a war against people smuggling and you’ve got to approach it on that basis.”
On Friday morning opposition leader Tony Abbott called on Mr Rudd to reinstate temporary protection visas as a way of stopping the flow of asylum seeker arrivals.
“I say to the PM if you really wanted to take the sugar off the table, you’d restore the temporary protection visas. You don’t need the parliament to do that, you don’t need a meeting to do that, you could sign back temporary protection visas today if you were fair dinkum about stopping the boats,” Mr Abbott said.