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Australia signs deal to send 'boat people' to Papua New Guinea

Former prime minister attacks new policy as ‘an abdication of our basic humanity’

The Australian Prime Minister unveiled the most draconian refugee policy in the country’s history today, announcing that asylum-seekers who arrive by boat will be resettled not in Australia but in neighbouring Papua New Guinea, a nation riddled with crime, poverty and corruption.

The announcement by Kevin Rudd – seen as an attempt to win over blue-collar voters before an election later this year – took the conservative opposition by surprise and horrified human rights advocates.

“This is a day of shame,” said Christine Milne, leader of the Australian Greens.

Asylum-seekers – who have been arriving in record numbers this year – were sent to Papua New Guinea’s remote Manus Island between 2001 and 2007, but only to have their refugee claims processed. Abandoned by Mr Rudd in 2008, the policy was resurrected last year by his Labor successor, Julia Gillard.

Now Mr Rudd, who deposed Ms Gillard last month, has gone further – a step some believe contravenes the UN refugee convention, which Australia has signed. Malcolm Fraser, a former prime minister, called it “an abdication of our basic humanity”.

A developing nation with poor healthcare, high unemployment, a dubious human rights record and, in its capital, Port Moresby, one of the world’s worst crime rates, Papua New Guinea is an unlikely refugee destination.

“This really does say to the rest of the world that Australia is a very rich country which is prepared to pass the buck to a very poor country because a prime minister doesn’t have the courage or the moral authority to do the right thing by refugees,” said Ms Milne.

Mr Rudd has had discussions with  Papua New Guinea’s premier, Peter O’Neill, but has yet to reveal how much Australia will pay Papua New Guinea for relieving it of a heavy political burden. He said the resettlement programme, which will run for at least a year, “will not be inexpensive”.

The aim is to deter asylum-seekers from embarking on the perilous voyage across the Indian Ocean from Indonesia, the main transit country – and demonstrate that Labor is prepared to be even tougher than the opposition Liberals, who have promised to “turn back” boats mid-ocean.

Labor has seen its fortunes soar since Mr Rudd resumed office. Setting a hectic pace, he has abolished an unpopular carbon tax and suspended the party’s corruption-plagued New South Wales branch.

The asylum issue is one of the thorniest in Australia, with voters in marginal seats citing it as one of their chief concerns. Head of the Liberal Party and opposition leader Tony Abbott had no choice but to “welcome” the new policy, although he predicted that “it won’t work under Mr Rudd”.

Nearly 16,000 asylum-seekers have arrived in Australian waters this year. An advertising campaign starting today will feature an image of a fishing boat mid-ocean and the warning that “if you come here by boat, you won’t be settled in Australia”.

“Boat people” will be processed at the Manus centre, where conditions were criticised in a UN report earlier this month. Those whose asylum claims are rejected will be sent home or deported to a third country.

Mr Rudd, who could call an election as early as next month, admitted that the policy was “very hardline”. But he said it was the government’s responsibility to “ensure we have a robust system of border security and orderly migration”.