Asylum seekers who try to arrive by boat in Australia will be deported to remote islands in the Pacific under tough new proposals to deter refugees from reaching the country by sea.

In a significant U-turn for the ruling Labor party, Julia Gillard said her government had accepted the recommendations of a panel of experts to reopen processing camps on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.

Legislation to enable deportation of asylum seekers would be introduced when parliament resumed on Tuesday, the prime minister said.

The decision came after months of political wrangling which came to a head in June when two boats carrying refugees capsized north of Christmas Island within a week of each other, killing at least 90 people.

Gillard, like the opposition Conservative party, argued that refugees should be processed offshore, but the two main parties differed over exactly where. Without a majority in parliament – and without the support of the Greens (who hold the balance of power and oppose offshore processing), Gillard was unable to get legislation through parliament.

On Monday Gillard said her government had accepted the recommendations of the expert panel convened six weeks ago to find a political solution. “What this report is calling on parliamentarians to do is to compromise and to act. This report is telling us not to stay in our fixed positions but to act and get things done,” she said. “When our nation looks at what is happening at sea, too many lives have been lost.”

The announcement drew immediate condemnation from human rights groups, who say it would be a breach of Australia’s international obligations.

Pamela Curr, of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, described the report as “a comprehensive package of harm”.

“People will still drown. What this [report] is making sure is that people drown elsewhere and don’t drown right in front of us,” she said.

More than 600 refugees have drowned in the past three years.

The panel recommended refugees be sent to Nauru and Manus Island for processing as a disincentive to others considering undertaking the dangerous voyage to Australia.

“We recommend a policy approach that is hard-headed but not hard-hearted. That is realistic not idealistic. That is driven by a sense of humanity as well as fairness,” said the panel’s chair, retired Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston.

The panel recommended that the changes to asylum policy should be part of a comprehensive regional framework that could later include Malaysia, provided safeguards and accountability measures governing the current agreement with Kuala Lumpur could be strengthened.

It said the government should apply the principle of “no advantage” to ensure no benefit was gained through “circumventing regular migration arrangements”.

Gillard said: “You need to equalise treatment for asylum seekers so you don’t get a better deal if you get on a boat.”

The panel also recommended increasing Australia’s humanitarian intake from 13,750 a year to 20,000, rising to 27,000 over five years, as an incentive for refugees to apply through regular immigration channels. Turning back asylum boats to where they came from was not a safe option at the moment, it said.

Human rights groups said the recommendations were in breach of Australia’s international legal obligations.

“Penalising people based on their mode of arrival is clearly in breach of our obligations,” Graham Thom, of Amnesty International, told ABC television. “We are only talking about people who come by boat, we’re not talking about the thousands of people who come by plane and seek asylum in this country. What we are doing is penalising one particular group and actually taking them to a very remote place where we know they’ve been damaged in the past and holding them hostage to stop other people from coming.”

The UNHCR said it would need to study in more detail the proposals for offshore processing. “However, the efficacy and integrity of such proposals will need to be assessed against their ability to deliver effective protection outcomes to refugees identified as needing protection under international law, not least through the 1951 refugee convention to which Australia is a party,” it said in a statement.

The Conservative opposition spokesman on immigration, Scott Morrison, said the panel’s findings amounted to an endorsement of his party’s policies and gave the government “the opportunity to fix the mess they’ve made” by resuming the previous Conservative government’s policy of offshore processing.

The Greens, who hold the balance of power in parliament, welcomed the recommendation of increasing the number of humanitarian places for refugees, but condemned offshore processing. “This is about a policy that strips out legal protections in Australian law,” said the party’s leader, Christine Milne. The Greens would not be party to something that was “cruel to people” and “sets up a chain of detention centres right across the Pacific”, she said.

This month 650 refugees have been picked up trying to reach Australia by boat. The annual number of arrivals by boat represents about 2% of Australia’s total migration. (The Guardian).


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