SYDNEY, Australia — Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia moved Friday to curtail the record number of people attempting the dangerous boat journey to claim asylum, pledging that no one who arrives in Australia by boat without a visa will ever be granted permission to settle here.
Under the tough new policy, all asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat would be sent to a refugee-processing center in nearby Papua New Guinea, which like Australia is a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Conventions. If they are found to be genuine refugees, they will be resettled in that country but forfeit any right to asylum in Australia.
Thousands of asylum seekers fly into Indonesia every year, where they pay smugglers to ferry them in often unsafe, overcrowded vessels to Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean that is its nearest point to Indonesia. Accidents at sea have killed more than 600 people since late 2009, and a long-term solution has bedeviled successive Australian governments going back more than a decade.
Mr. Rudd, who is facing a hotly contested federal election within weeks, acknowledged that the policy was harsh and likely to face legal challenges. But he said that something had to be done to protect the lives of asylum seekers and restore the integrity of the country’s borders.
“Australians have had enough of seeing people drowning in the waters to our north,” Mr. Rudd said at a news conference. “Our country has had enough of people smugglers exploiting asylum seekers and seeing them drown on the high seas.”
“As of today asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia,” he said.
No issue looms as large over Australian politics as how do deal with asylum seekers, and the crossings involving fatalities have continued without any sign of abatement. On Wednesday the government announced that a boat carrying around 150 asylum seekers had capsized in the Indian Ocean, killing four people. An infant was killed in a similar accident the previous week.
Under the so-called Pacific Solution of former Prime Minister John Howard a decade ago, asylum seekers were transported to nearby island nations like Papua New Guinea and Nauru for lengthy processing meant to remove the incentive for claiming asylum on Australia’s shores. The policy, which was roundly criticized by human rights advocates, was abandoned when Mr. Rudd became prime minister for the first time in 2007.
But Mr. Rudd’s policy has backfired, leading to an explosion in the number of arrivals from 161 asylum seekers in 2008 to 11,599 in just the first three quarters of 2012-13, the latest period for which official statistics have been published. The majority of arrivals are from Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.
In 2012, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard effectively revived the Pacific Solution, opening offshore detention centers in Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. The number of spots at those two centers, however, was not nearly adequate to hold the steady stream of new arrivals, and Australia is now facing a backlog of some 20,000 people awaiting processing.
Mr. Rudd said that there would be no cap on the number of people who could be sent to Papua New Guinea under the new agreement, but that the policy would be re-examined after one year. It was not immediately clear how much it would cost to build adequate facilities in Papua New Guinea, nor did Mr. Rudd say how much of that cost burden would be shouldered by Australia.
But many have been highly critical of conditions at the Manus Island camp, and the announcement immediately drew the ire of rights groups. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees issued a damning report last month that called conditions there “below international standards for the reception and treatment of asylum-seekers” and warned about the “harsh” living arrangements for men in particular.
“The new plans to resettle all asylum seekers that are found to be refugees in PNG shows not only a complete disregard for asylum seekers but absolute contempt for legal and moral obligations,” Graeme McGregor, Amnesty International Australia’s refugee campaign coordinator, said in a news release.
“Mark this day in history as the day Australia decided to turn its back on the world’s most vulnerable people, closed the door and threw away the key,” he said.