Australia has begun deporting undocumented migrants to camps on Pacific islands, reviving its so-called 'Pacific Solution.' Human rights groups have criticized the policy - and even its effectiveness is in doubt.
Thirty Sri Lankan asylum seekers will be become the first to have refugee claims processed offshore since 2007 after being flown to the Pacific island nation of Nauru from the Australian territory of Christmas Island on Friday.
The tough new policy aims to deter refugee boats and people-smuggling from neighboring Indonesia. The asylum seekers will initially be forced to live in tents, reportedly in groups of five.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the transfer went "smoothly and without incident."
"The message is very clear. If you arrive in Australia by boat, you can be taken from Australia by aeroplance and be processed in another country," Bowen said.
When fully operational, the Nauru detention center will accommodate some 1,500 asylum seekers. Another 600 are to be sent to the isolated Manus Island, which belongs to Papua New Guinea.
Offshore processing means that asylum seekers granted refugee status are not guaranteed resettlement in Australia, but are put on a waiting list to find a country for resettlement.
The policy led to protests by asylum seekers the first time round
Australia's Human Rights Commission has said it has serious concerns that asylum seeker rights might not be properly protected in Nauru. The Australian Greens and human rights groups have also condemned the policy, saying refugees will face increased stress and potential mental health problems owing to long detention periods.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard last month yielded to opposition calls to reopen offshore detention centers after a string of tragedies caused by refugee boats sinking on their way from Indonesia to Australia's Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.
Australia first implemented the Pacific Solution in 2001 under conservative Prime Minister John Howard of the Liberal Party. The policy worked the first time round, and the camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea were closed under a Labor goverment in 2007.
However, the sheer numbers of people that have either arrived by boat already or are planning to do so make it doubtful that the "solution" will solve anything this time round. Over 10,000 people have arrived so far this year by boat, and an estimated 12,000 are awaiting passage to Australia.
Another problem is that Iran, from where many refugees stem, refuses to take back citizens who flee.
Australia receives only a small proportion of the world's asylum seekers each year. The United Nations refugee agency said Australia received just 11,800 asylum claims in 2011, compared with 441,000 globally.
tj/jlw (Reuters, AFP, dpa)