The political arms race on border protection appears to be having an effect, with signs boat arrivals are tapering off amid claims by the government that asylum seekers are turning against people smugglers.
Immigration Minister Tony Burke said on Wednesday that large numbers of asylum seekers who had paid for passage to Australia were demanding their money back from people smugglers.
And a senior Defence source said that arrivals appeared to be tapering - though they noted that poor weather was also probably a factor. The number of people to arrive since Kevin Rudd announced the tough Papua New Guinea deal reached 1874.
With the two major parties set to keep slugging out the immigration battle through the election campaign, Mr Burke said on Wednesday that there was ''no doubt that the message is getting through'' that asylum seekers would go to Papua New Guinea rather than be settled in Australia. Boat arrivals have been down about a quarter since Mr Rudd announced the PNG plan. But that includes a massive rise in the week after the plan was announced, with about 1250 arrivals in those seven days, including six boats with nearly 500 passengers in one day.
The following week there were fewer than 400 arrivals and in the period since then there have been about 360 arrivals.
It came as the total number of asylum seekers to arrive since Mr Rudd unwound the tough Howard-era policies topped 50,000, which Opposition Leader Tony Abbott branded a ''terrible milestone''. ''This has been an absolute disaster for our country,'' he said. But Mr Burke said there was ''no doubt'' the government's hardline policy was getting through to asylum seekers in the region, with reports some were demanding their money back from people smugglers en masse in Indonesia.
But Mr Burke said he could not offer more details because he had only ''specific clearance'' to release some information. ''There is no doubt the message is getting through.
''For everything that's been attempted in the past with people smugglers, it's become clear that the only way to affect them is to take their product away and to take their customers away,'' he said.
''When I say the demands for money back are widespread, they are absolutely widespread.''
A senior Defence source said there did appear to be a slowing of arrivals because of poor weather to Australia's north.