SYDNEY, Australia -- Senior Australian officials on Sunday defended the country's tough new policy aimed at curtailing the surge of people attempting a dangerous boat journey to claim asylum as the Australian Navy intercepted the first vessel to be subjected to the policy.
Every year, thousands of asylum seekers pay smugglers to ferry them in often unsafe, crowded vessels to Christmas Island, a remote territory in the Indian Ocean that is Australia's closest point to Indonesia. Australia has struggled for more than a decade to deter the asylum seekers from attempting the potentially deadly journey.
Under the policy announced Friday by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, all asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat are to be sent to refugee-processing centers in Papua New Guinea, which like Australia, has signed the United Nations convention on refugees. If the asylum seekers are found to be entitled to refugee status under the convention and not simply economic migrants, they will be resettled in Papua New Guinea, but they forfeit any right to seek asylum in Australia.
That announcement appears to have been a factor in a riot on Friday at an Australian-run detention center on the Pacific island nation of Nauru.
A spokeswoman for the Australian Foreign Ministry told The Associated Press on Sunday that the riot had caused damages worth an estimated $55 million, and had led to the arrest of 125 asylum seekers.
Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Attorney General Mark Dreyfus were among the senior Australian officials making the rounds on Sunday morning talk shows to defend the policy.
"I think the position of the vast majority of the Australian people is that, subject to some room for judicial oversight and review, it is the executive government backed by the Parliament that ought to make the final decision on whether people be processed on Australian soil or somewhere else," Mr. Carr told Sky News.
The first opportunity to test that proposition came Saturday when a ship carrying 81 asylum seekers was intercepted by the Australian Navy.
Tony Burke, the immigration minister, said that the passengers would be sent to Papua New Guinea if they decided to proceed with their asylum claim.
But the decision to send potential refugees to Papua New Guinea, a politically unstable country suffering from what some experts have called an epidemic of violence, particularly against women and children, has already raised serious ethical and legal questions.
David Manne, a prominent human rights lawyer who succeeded in blocking a similar proposal in 2011 to process migrants in Malaysia, declined to speculate on the likelihood of a legal challenge over the boat intercepted Saturday. He did, however, assert that Papua New Guinea was ill equipped to protect the asylum seekers.
"The sad reality is that P.N.G. is an extremely unsafe place," he said in an e-mail exchange. "There can be no assurance that refugees will be given the protection they're entitled to, and there is every prospect they will not be protected."
A decade ago, under Prime Minister John Howard, asylum seekers were transported to nearby island nations for a lengthy processing intended to remove the incentive for claiming asylum on Australia's shores.
Mr. Rudd abandoned the policy when he became prime minister for the first time in 2007, which led to an explosion in the number of arrivals.
In 2012, Prime Minister Julia Gillard opened new offshore detention centers in Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, but they lacked the capacity to handle the deluge of arrivals and did little to discourage them.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.