By Uditha Jayasinghe
COLOMBO, July 27 (Xinhua) -- Hundreds of Sri Lankan asylum seekers will be deeply affected by a new Australian migration policy, which bans settlement in that country and aims to smash local people smuggling cartels but has come under fire from the United Nations.
Landmark changes in Australia's migration policy were inked in law by new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd ending hundreds of Sri Lankans hopes of settling there.
"Many of you are aware last week the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced a significant change to Australia's approach to irregular migration. As on 19 July, the date of the announcement, no asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat without a visa will be settled in Australia," Australia's Acting High Commissioner Sonya Koppe told media in Colombo.
She said that under the terms of the Regional Settlement Arrangement signed with Papua New Guinea, unauthorized arrivals will be sent to that country for processing.
If they are found to be refugees they will be settled in Papua New Guinea. If not found to be refugees they will be returned to their home country or transferred to a third country.
"Arriving by boat in Australia will not mean settlement in Australia," she emphasized.
Despite the end of a three decade war in 2009 thousands of Sri Lankans continuously attempt to cross perilous waters to reach Australia in the hope of a better life.
Many of them pay thousands of dollars to people smugglers to get berth on unseaworthy fishing vessels that then take weeks to cross terrifying seas to land in Australia. Some never make it leaving men, women and children in watery graves.
Even if they make it to Australia they face enormous dual challenges of being accepted under Australia's ever tightening migration policy and then making enough money to pay the smugglers.
Last Wednesday nine people including Sri Lankans drowned when a boat capsized off Australia's coastline. Undeterred 68 more Sri Lankans landed in Australia just two days later. Under the new regulations these people will be sent to Papua New Guinea.
In 2012 alone more than 2,000 people were arrested by the Sri Lankan navy, according to media reports and since August last year over 1,300 have been returned by the Australian government, most of them involuntarily.
In fact the border agencies say that numbers of boat people during peaceful times in Sri Lanka have risen higher than during the conflict period, caused mostly by worsening economic conditions.
So desperate has the situation become that the Australian government has decided to process these illegal migrants in Papua New Guinea.
"This is a significant change to the Australian policy. The agreement says that if you are found to be refugees under the government of Papua New Guinea you will be settled in Papua New Guinea. You will not be resettled in Australia, which is what the people smugglers have been selling, they have been selling a trip to Australia. This will no longer happen," Immigration and Citizenship Regional Director (South Asia) Jose Alvarez said in response to questions asked by Xinhua.
He stressed that even if refugees already have family in Australia, they will not be allowed to join them.
"People need to understand that what the people smugglers are telling them is not true. There is no limit on the numbers of people that can be moved to Papua New Guinea. Manus Island has capacity at the moment for 200 people; they are going to expand that to 3,000 people. So we will be able to send 3,000 people to Papua New Guinea. We are looking at establishing other processing centers in Papua New Guinea," he said.
However, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHRC) has said it is "troubled" by the "significant shortcomings" of the new measures.
A statement released by the UNHCR noted Australia's new policy faced "significant policy, legal and operational challenges. UNHCR is troubled by the current absence of adequate protection standards and safeguards for asylum seekers and refugees in Papua New Guinea."
By UNHRC estimation, Papua New Guinea is currently not prepared for processing asylum seekers, due to "a lack of national capacity and expertise in processing, and poor physical conditions within open-ended, mandatory and arbitrary detention settings."
Dismissing UNHRC claims Alvarez expressed the confidence that the "checks and balances" the Australian government has put in place is sufficient to protect genuine asylum seekers.
The migration issue is also expected to be a key point in Australian elections that are expected to be announced soon.
Back in Sri Lanka the Australian officials are struggling to break cartels of people smugglers operating island wide.
"Human smuggling is a crime that Sri Lanka and Australia are working together to combat. Australia very much values the continued close cooperation we have with the Sri Lankan government in addressing the shared problem of immigration," Kope acknowledged.
A large part of the deterrent strategy is a massive awareness campaign that will be launched next week targeting low income coastline populations that are most vulnerable to smugglers. This is the latest in a series of media initiatives that began in November 2012 but have garnered limited success.
Unless economic conditions improve at the source Australia's illegal migrant problem will remain unsolved for some time to come.