Tough talk on refugees as Aussie polls loom

Tough talk on refugees as Aussie polls loom
A protest rally against Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's asylum-seeker policy in Sydney.

AUSTRALIA - It is likely to be the economy, the fast-sinking Aussie dollar and who the electorate feels has the best skill set to effect structural changes that will decide the outcome of Australia's Sept 7 elections.

But that has not stopped newly appointed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and opposition Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott from trying to outdo each other in their hardline approach to the asylum-seeker issue.

No one is going to be a winner in this, least of all the refugees. At this point, it is difficult to see how Mr Rudd's radicalised Papua New Guinea (PNG) experiment or Mr Abbott's threatened tow- back policy can solve a problem that simply defies a lasting solution.

A tougher approach did work between 2001 and 2008, the year Mr Rudd, the incumbent prime minister, closed the processing centres on the Pacific islands of Manus and Nauru, established as part of predecessor John Howard's "Pacific Solution".

That reignited the flood, but the times have changed as well. People smuggling has become a hugely profitable criminal enterprise - and the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan next year may open the floodgates even wider.

Mr Rudd's monumental flip-flop aims at moving all new boat arrivals to an expanded corner of Lombrum naval base on Manus, off PNG's northern coast. If they are found to be genuine refugees, they will be able to resettle there - but not in Australia.

"The only way this will work is if it doesn't have to happen," says one refugee official, who is equally sceptical about the Abbott go-for-broke policy. "It's too big a flip-flop for people to think Rudd is serious."

PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has already denied he agreed to take all asylum seekers, and despite claims by Australian immigration authorities, there is little evidence so far of a real let-up in the flow. Indeed, 2,900 people have landed in Australia since the policy was announced on July 19 and Indonesian authorities have intercepted 1,500 more, mostly while flying to boat take-off points stretching from North Sumatra to West Timor.

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