Australia said Tuesday its tough new policy to deter asylum seekers by shipping them to small Pacific islands would take time to work, after the arrival of more than 1,000 potential refugees since it was adopted.
Canberra announced its intention to transfer asylum seekers to tiny Nauru and Papua New Guinea on August 13 and since then 17 boats carrying 1,029 people have arrived, releases from Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare show.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen rejected the idea that the new approach designed to crack down on people-smugglers and deter refugees from making the dangerous boat journey was not working.
“It’s not having an effect yet, but it does take time to work,” Bowen told radio station 2SM.
“It will become more effective when we actually have planes going to Nauru and PNG.”
Australia has said that people arriving by boat without a visa after August 13 run the risk of transfer to a regional processing country.
But the camps on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, which will eventually have a total capacity of 2,100 people, are not yet up and running.
The temporary processing facility on Nauru being built by the Australian military is expected to hold some 500 people by the end of September.
Offshore processing is a sensitive issue in Australia, and is likely to be discussed by leaders at the Pacific Islands Forum, which gets underway this week.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard adopted the policy after months of bitter political debate and after several boats capsized while making the treacherous crossing to Australia and dozens of people died.
The government wants to shut down people-smugglers bringing asylum seekers to Australia from transit hubs in places such as Indonesia amid an influx of arrivals originally from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.
Some 8,766 asylum seekers have arrived on 133 boats since the start of the year, surpassing the 2010 record of 134 boats carrying 6,555 people.
The new policy represents a return to the harsh policies of the previous conservative government that sent asylum seekers to Nauru and Manus but which center-left Labor rolled back soon after taking office in late 2007.