BEIRUT: The Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship confirmed Friday what it described as the “transfer” of numerous detained Lebanese citizens to the island of Papua New Guinea, after a new migration law went into effect. Twenty-six Lebanese nationals Wednesday night left Christmas Island, which lies in Australian waters, and arrived at the regional processing center, where prospective refugees await registration, in Manus Province, Papua New Guinea, Thursday morning, the department said in a statement. They will remain there while their refugee claims are processed by the government of Papua New Guinea, it said.
The Lebanese were deported from Australia in a group of 40 young men, which also included Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian nationals. The group was the ninth to be deported to Papua New Guinea, according to a statement from the Australian Embassy.
Australian premier Kevin Rudd enacted a new immigration law on July 19 barring asylum-seekers fleeing war-torn or impoverished countries arriving to Australia by boat and without a visa from settling in the country.
“If people are paying thousands and thousands of dollars to a people smuggler, they are buying a ticket to a country other than Australia,” a spokesman at the Department of Immigration and Citizenship said Thursday.
According to the law, asylum-seekers who are registered as refugees will be allowed to settle, while those who are not must return to their home country.
Those seeking asylum in Australia typically travel to Indonesia first and then pay thousands of dollars to smugglers to take them on a perilous voyage to Christmas Island in small and unsafe boats. Hundreds perish on the boat trip due to starvation, dehydration and drowning.
The Australian government said its decision to restrict boat arrivals was primarily aimed at discouraging asylum-seekers from making the dangerous voyage and paying smugglers exorbitant sums to do so.
Families of the detained Lebanese, who hail from the northern Tripoli neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the town of Akkar, held a protest outside the Australian Embassy in Beirut earlier this week, urging officials to reconsider the decision and allow their sons to stay in Australia.
While the families stressed that the detained Lebanese had gotten to Christmas Island well before July 19, when the new law was enacted, the Australian Embassy said that they had in fact arrived on July 25, after the prime minister’s decision.
The detained Lebanese tore up their passports after the voyage, further complicating their claims to refugee status.