Australia says hardline asylum-seeker policy working

Photo illustration of an asylum-seeker boat.

SYDNEY - Australia on Wednesday said its new hardline stance on boatpeople was working with widespread evidence from Indonesia that asylum-seekers were demanding their money back from people-smugglers.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd struck a deal with his Papua New Guinea counterpart Peter O'Neill last month that asylum-seekers arriving in Australia on unauthorised boats would be sent to the poor Pacific nation for processing and resettled there - even if judged to be genuine refugees.

The agreement formally took effect on August 1 when the first group of mainly Afghan and Iranian men were dispatched to PNG and Immigration Minister Tony Burke said the intelligence he was receiving was that the deterrent policy was working.

"We have widespread examples from on the ground in Indonesia of people asking for their money back from people-smugglers," said Burke of the sensitive political issue that is set for a key role in national elections on September 7.

"There is no doubt that the message is getting through.

"From everything that's been attempted in the past, it's become clear that the only way to affect people-smugglers is to take their product away and to take their customers away.

"The regional resettlement arrangements take the product away from people-smugglers, and the information getting out is that we are now at the beginnings of their customers being taken away as well," he added.

With no chance of being settled in Australia, people were starting to realise "that what they have paid for is no longer available to them" with a multi-million dollar advertising campaign starting to hit home, Burke said.

The so-called PNG solution, which Canberra drafted to help stem a record influx of boat arrivals that has topped 17,000 so far this year, has been criticised by refugee advocates and human rights groups.

It is set to cost Australia about Aus$1.1 billion (US$980 million) over four years, with existing facilities on PNG's Manus Island, where the refugee processing camp is located, needing to be significantly expanded. In exchange, aid has been boosted to the poverty-stricken country.

The tiny Pacific island of Nauru has also opted to join the initiative, although the Solomon Islands on Tuesday rejected Australian approaches.

Under the scheme, those who pay people-smugglers for passage on unauthorised boats will either be resettled in PNG or Nauru, returned to their country or origin, or settled in another country in which they have a right of residence.

In the week since arrivals had started being transferred to Manus Island, Burke said a "very significant number" were now in talks with the International Organisation of Migration to arrange their travel back home.