Rudd in deal with PNG on asylum seekers

PM says people arriving by boat in Australia now have no chance of being settled as a refugee

Australia and Papua New Guinea have signed a new agreement that will allow the resettlement of asylum seekers in PNG under a regional arrangement, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said last night.

"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, who was flanked by his PNG counterpart Peter O'Neill, said in Brisbane.

Asylum seekers arriving at Christmas Island will be sent to Australia's Manus Island processing centre and elsewhere in Papua New Guinea for assessment of their refugee status.

"If they are found to be genuine refugees, they will be resettled in Papua New Guinea," Rudd said.

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard in August 2012 reinstated the Howard Government's policy of processing asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru.

The Manus facility has since been criticised by former staff, refugee advocates and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for its harsh living conditions.

The temporary facility on the island houses 215 people in tents and shelters. A permanent 600-bed facility is due for completion in January.

Rudd said the arrangement would apply for the next 12 months, and be subject to annual review.

It does not specify an absolute limit to the number of asylum seekers who can be transferred, or genuine refugees who can be resettled.

"Our expectation ... is as this regional resettlement arrangement is implemented, and the message is sent loud and clear back up the pipeline, the number of boats will decline over time as asylum seekers then make recourse to other, more normal UNHCR processes to have their claims assessed," Rudd said.

Rudd noted PNG was "an emerging economy with a strong future, a robust democracy" and was also a signatory to the United Nations Refugees Convention.

Rudd said Australia and PNG would deliver the message "loud and clear" to people smuggling networks and criminal elements within Australia helping them.

"The hopes they offer their customers for the future are nothing but false hopes," he said.

Australia will continue its cooperative offshore processing arrange-ments with Nauru.

Rudd hoped those Nauru arrangements would be built on in the future.

"I understand that this is a very hard-line decision," Rudd said.

"But our responsibility as a Government is to ensure that we have a robust system of border security and orderly migration, on the one hand, as well as fulfilling our legal and compassionate obligations under the refugees convention on the other."

Rudd acknowledged the implementation of the new regional approach would not be smooth.

"We are bound to run into many unanticipated problems," he said.

"We will tackle them one by one."

Rudd said the plan was part of a multi-layered approach to dealing with people smuggling, within the legal framework of the refugee convention.

Rudd has spoken with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon about the plan.

Australia also plans to convene an international conference of transit and destination countries to consider how to improve global arrangements for refugees. The conference would consider the adequacy of processing arrangements and how Australia, the United States, Canada and other countries could deal better with the resettlement issues.

Rudd said Australia would also seek to develop more regional arrangements at a similar conference due to be hosted by Indonesia.

Immigration Minister Tony Burke said the new regime applied immediately - starting with those asylum seekers on board a vessel intercepted on Thursday.

"People who are currently within the detention network - within Australia on Manus or on Nauru - do not have these rules apply to them," he said.

Finance Minister Penny Wong will soon announce the cost of the new arrangements.

Rudd said the existing heavy burden on the budget would fall.

"The new arrangement will actually send a very clear message to people smugglers with the objective of reducing the numbers over time and therefore with less call on the budget," he said.

- AAP

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