Boat people pose challenge for Abbott

AUSTRALIA - Australia's incoming prime minister Tony Abbott is facing his first foreign policy challenge over his pledge to "stop the boats" of asylum seekers, with Papua New Guinea applying pressure on Canberra as the first post-election people- smuggling boats arrived.

Mr Abbott already was forced to make a reassuring call to Papua New Guinea on Monday as he began work on implementing his promise to stem the flow of asylum seekers arriving by boat from camps in Indonesia.

The hardline approach was one of his most consistent and strident policy pledges in the lead-up to his landslide victory in last Saturday's federal election.

He has pledged a panoply of tough measures including using the navy to turn around boats headed for Australia, expanding offshore detention of asylum seekers in small island nations across the Pacific and turning border protection into a military operation overseen by a three-star general.

He also plans to tighten refugee appeal laws and to deny permanent residency to 30,000 asylum seekers who are yet to have their claims processed; most are originally from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.

During the election campaign, in a widely ridiculed proposal, he even promised to send joint Australian- Indonesian patrols to Indonesian villages to buy people- smuggling boats.

But Mr Abbott's stance came under immediate pressure when a boat filled with 88 passengers and two crew members was found in Australian waters within hours of his election last Saturday night.

Another boat, filled with 57 people, was later intercepted by the Australian authorities at Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean which now has a large detention centre for asylum seekers.

Mr Abbott, due to be sworn in as prime minister next week when vote counting ends, stood by his promise on Monday and said the new "Operation Sovereign Borders" would begin as soon as he formally became leader.

"I think the people-smugglers now know that things are going to be very, very different in this country and in the seas to our north," he told Radio 2UE.

"It wouldn't surprise me if they attempt to test the new government's resolve, but they will certainly find the determination more than equal to theirs."

Mr Abbott signalled that his proposed restrictions on the rights of asylum seekers will be one of his first measures in office.

"One of the things that will happen very swiftly is that people who come here illegally by boat - even those who might ultimately be found to be refugees - will not get permanent residency of our country," he said.

However, he will face the serious diplomatic challenge of securing the support of Pacific nations to detain and resettle asylum seekers who arrive in Australia.

The outgoing Prime Minister, Mr Kevin Rudd, secured the support of Papua New Guinea to process and resettle asylum seekers in return for allowing the former Australian colony more control of the some A$500 million (S$587 million) it receives in foreign aid.

However, Mr Abbott is planning A$4.5 billion in foreign aid cuts and Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill was quick to point out that it expected the deal to remain in place.

"The resettlement programme and the infrastructure development programme associated with this - negotiated and agreed to with the Rudd government - were done with the Australian government, not a political party or individual," Mr O'Neill told The National newspaper.

"I would expect the incoming government to respect it."

Following Mr O'Neill's comments, Mr Abbott was reported in The Australian newspaper to have contacted the Papua New Guinea leader to reassure him that Australia was committed to the existing refugee deal.

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