SYDNEY — Canberra insisted today that a new deterrent policy of locking up refugees on remote Pacific islands was working despite a weekend surge in arrivals and self-harm attempts among detainees.
More than 500 asylum-seekers arrived in Australia on people-smuggling boats at the weekend, taking the total arrivals since the government unveiled its Pacific detention policy in August to some 4,500.
That number easily overwhelms capacity at the spartan centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island, which combined can only hold about 2,000.
The conservative opposition said the latest influx showed that the policy, which has been criticised by the United Nation's refugee agency and human rights groups, was not having a deterrent effect.
But Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said stemming the record flow of boats was a tough task and progress was being made, with a number of Sri Lankan asylum-seekers opting to return home instead of being sent to Nauru.
"There's no doubt that there is wide awareness now of our new policies and that they are being noted," Bowen told ABC radio.
"However, as I've consistently said, we have a very significant challenge in that we are tackling the lies and the spin of people-smugglers."
Bowen said the Pacific centres were one plank of a comprehensive set of measures including a so-called "people swap" with Malaysia. The policy was struck down by Australia's High Court last year on legal grounds but the government are hopeful of resurrecting it.
"Nauru by itself is not an effective deterrent," Bowen said.
"I've consistently made the point that this is a very complex undertaking which will take time and full resolve to have its full impact."
Bowen said there had been two self-harm incidents on Nauru in recent days as well as a peaceful protest at the immigration centre involving about 200 detainees.
"We have people who do not want to be on Nauru and we are managing a difficult situation there," he said.
According to refugee activists, one Iranian man attempted to kill himself and was found "turning blue" last week after learning it would be at least eight months before his visa claims were even looked at.
Australia's Human Rights Commission warned Monday that the spartan conditions on Nauru, where detainees are living in tents awaiting construction of permanent buildings, posed a number of problems.
"Nauru is extremely isolated, and has a very small population," the commission said in a report on the offshore processing policy.
"The commission is concerned that the long-term detention of asylum seekers in third countries could detrimentally affect their physical and mental health."
Though they arrive in relatively small numbers by global standards refugees are a controversial issue in Australia, dominating national elections in 2010.
More than 12,000 asylum-seekers have arrived by boat so far this year, double the previous annual record, and the government hopes the prospect of Pacific detention will deter people from paying smugglers for passage.