Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, recently announced a strict new policy mandating that all asylum seekers arriving by boat would be sent to a refugee-processing center in Papua New Guinea. This policy change has been covered widely in the media, through the New York Times, the BBC, and other news outlets. According to the Australian Prime Minister’s announcement, asylum seekers, by arriving by boat without a valid visa, will forfeit any right to claim asylum in Australia. Rather, if an asylum seeker is determined to have a genuine claim to refugee status, she will be resettled in Papua New Guinea. Australia is, of course, a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. While this development is disheartening, it is not shocking given the political arena and the long history of restrictive asylum policies in Australia. Australia’s policies with regards to asylum seekers arriving by sea have long been controversial. In August 2001, Australia turned away a Norwegian vessel in distress carrying over 400 asylum seekers, focusing international attention on the intersection of maritime rescue law and refugee law. For coverage of this incident and in depth coverage on related issues, see Professor Niels W. Frenzen’s Migrants at Sea blog. Amnesty International’s Australia Chapter also provides regular reports and coverage on the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in Australia.
Australia is, of course, is only one of several countries to turn away asylum seekers arriving by sea. Indeed, the United States also participates in interdiction at sea. In fact, our own Supreme Court explicitly found this practice to be in line with our international obligations even where, in that case, the US was interdicting Haitians and returning them to the country of feared persecution. See Sale v. Haitian Centers Council, 509 U.S. 155 (1993). Whether Australia’s evolving interdiction policy will be judged by its own courts remains to be seen.