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Australia

Prime Minister Rudd bars boat people from entering Australia

Australia has banned entry by sea to refugees from Indonesia, and announced a new deal to resettle all new boat people to Papua New Guinea. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced the changes just weeks before an election.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd unveiled a tougher border policy on Friday for people who risk ocean crossings from Indonesia, after Papua New Guinea signed a deal to process their asylum claims on its Manus Island.

Rudd, who returned to office as prime minister last month when his Labor Party removed Julia Gillard as premier, faces a federal election expected within weeks.

The opposition conservative Liberals, led by Tony Abbott, are favored to win that poll, according to recent surveys. They have vowed to stop incoming boat people, if they win power.

Move slammed by Amnesty

Amnesty International regional coordinator Graeme McGregor slammed Rudd's announcement, saying Australia had decided to "turn its back on the world's most vulnerable people" and throw "away the key."

In a further move on Friday, Indonesia said it would stop issuing tourist visas on arrival to Iranians, who comprise as many as a third of the asylum-seekers who use Indonesia as a transit point in their attempts to leave their home countries and reach Australia.

Regional deal signed by PNG

Rudd told a press conference in Brisbane alongside visiting Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill that asylum-seeking boat people would be processed on Manus Island at a proposed new facility designed to take in 3,000 people.

In Brisbane, the two leaders signed a Regional Settlement Arrangement which was to take effect immediately and be reviewed annually.

Last week, the United Nation's refugee agency, UNHCR, found major shortcomings at Manus Island's existing tent facility, saying it was hot and "cramped" with privacy and medical deficiencies.

Rudd: 'No chance'

Rudd said he expected the number of arrivals in Australian maritime territory to drop off once the word went out that only "genuine refugees" will have a country of settlement, "namely Papua New Guinea."

"From now on, any asylum-seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as a refugee," Rudd added.

The large island nation of Papua New Guinea (PNG), north of Australia, is rich in mineral resources but chronically poor with a reputation for lawlessness.

Rudd described PNG on Friday as an "emerging economy" and a "robust democracy"

He went on to accuse people-smuggling networks operating from Indonesia of charging would-be asylum seekers thousands of dollars and thereby profiting from "nothing but false hopes."

Dangerous crossings

Since the Labor government took office in 2007, more than 46,000 boat people - mainly from Middle Eastern countries - have arrived in Australia. More than 1,000 have died while attempting the 500-kilometer ocean journey from Indonesia.

On Tuesday, four asylum-seekers died when a people-smuggling boat carrying about 150 occupants capsized off Christmas Island, triggering a major rescue operation by Australian border protection vessels and aircraft.

As many as 200 died when a boat sank off East Java in December 2011.

Rudd, when first elected prime minister in 2007, initially dismantled harsh policies of Australia's former conservative government. It had shipped applicants to offshore detention centers and only issued temporary visits to those assessed as refugees.

ipj/pfd (dpa, Reuters, AFP, AP)