Rudd pledges 'hardline' approach on refugees
By Amy Coopes
Agence France Presse
June 30, 2009
SYDNEY (AFP) Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Wednesday pledged a “hardline” approach on illegal immigrants following reports that thousands of refugees were headed for the country.
Rudd said he would not underestimate the scale of the problem after a boat carrying 194 asylum seekers was intercepted off the northwest coast, fuelling criticism over his move to relax the previous government's policies.
“The government has introduced hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of new measures to work at country of origin, to work at our cop on the beat, the navy on the high seas,” Rudd told commercial radio.
“(There is) also a hardline system which says if this is not a bona fide asylum seeker then they go back, go back to the country concerned.”
Sunday's boatload was the biggest single number of asylum seekers to arrive in Australia in eight years.
Indonesian officials told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper between 7,000 and 10,000 would-be asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Iraq were waiting in Malaysia to travel to Australia.
The opposition party has blamed Rudd for the apparent impending influx, saying his “soft” stance on refugees made Australia an attractive destination.
But the centre-left leader, who relaxed the previous conservative government's policy of locking up boatpeople for years at a time, said he was taking a methodical approach to the problem.
Rudd said a great deal of work was being done behind the scenes in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia to address people-smuggling.
“I am not going to underestimate the problem,” he said.
“It's there, it's real, it's growing around the world, but we intend to be hardline and sensible in the way in which we handle it.”
Rudd's comments came as 11 Indonesian men convicted of people-smuggling offences committed between December 2008 and March this year were jailed for at least three years.
Refugee policy has been a thorn in the side of successive governments, with a political storm erupting after ex-prime minister John Howard wrongly accused asylum seekers in 2001 of throwing children into the sea to avoid capture by the navy.
The sensitive nature of the issue was highlighted in April, when officials claimed Afghan refugees deliberately torched a vessel which exploded off the northwestern coast, killing five and injuring dozens of others.
Under the new system, introduced last September, claims must be processed swiftly, with mandatory six-monthly independent case reviews.