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Asylum seeker deaths pressure Australia to change policy

The death of 28 asylum seekers who drowned when their boat was smashed on rocks on Christmas Island has renewed pressure on Prime Minister Julia Gillard to soften Australia's asylum policy and may strain her one-seat minority government.

world Updated: Dec 16, 2010 08:38 IST

The death of 28 asylum seekers who drowned when their boat was smashed on rocks on Christmas Island has renewed pressure on Prime Minister Julia Gillard to soften Australia's asylum policy and may strain her one-seat minority government.

Independent MP Rob Oakeshott, whose support won Gillard's Labor a second term in August, has demanded the prime minister explain why the Indonesian timber boat, carrying Iraqis, was not intercepted on Wednesday, like other asylum boats, in open seas.

Australia's Greens party, another key member of Gillard's minority government, has also renewed calls for a "more humane" approach to boatpeople and a regional asylum processing centre.

"Rumours and allegations are shooting through communities...with the worst being that government authorities allowed this to happen," Oakeshott said in a statement on Thursday.

"These rumours must be addressed head on. Leadership must make a detailed and comprehensive statement of exactly what happened and why it happened. A clear and precise statement from the prime minister is important and must come soon."

The issue of how to handle boatpeople arrivals, while small in number compared with those crossing the Mediterranean to Europe, is an emotive subject in Australia and was a major issue at August national elections.

But both Oakeshott and the Greens, who favour a softer line on asylum policy, are not expected to risk the government's future, although Gillard will need to balance their concerns with those of Labor hardliners.

"Labor is really struggling on border security issues. The government raised expectations that they would stop the boat arrivals. But their policy is a complete mess," said political analyst Nick Economou, from Melbourne's Monash University.

Gillard has cut short her Christmas holidays to deal with the asylum seeker tragedy. She has previously proposed a regional asylum processing centre, possibly in East Timor, to curb boatpeople arrivals. More than 130 boats arrived in 2010.

"Her task is purely and simply to try and ensure that yesterday's deaths do not revive the issue of boatpeople in a way that seriously damages the standing of her government," said political commentator Richard Farmer.

In 2001, then Prime Minister John Howard led his conservative government to victory at elections solely on the policy of tougher border protection and stopping boatpeople.

The death toll from Wednesday's tragedy could rise to more than 50, say rescue officials, with only 44 people rescued from a possible 100 passengers. Police said most of the passengers on the timber Indonesian boat were Iraqis.

"People who have survived say there were between 70 and 100. But we really don't know and we probably never will," said Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.

Australia's worst boatpeople tragedy was in 2001 when 353 asylum seekers drowned when their Indonesian timber boat sank in the Indian Ocean.

"Unless the government changes its policies and adopts a welcome refugee policy, there will be more tragedies," said Australia's Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul.

Australia intercepts boatpeople in the Indian Ocean, detaining them on its remote Christmas Island for processing, which prevents asylum seekers gaining greater legal rights by landing on the Australian mainland.

Bowen, just returned from talks with the United Nations and Malaysia over a possible East Timor processing centre, said the latest tragedy would not change border security policy.

"We need to break the people-smuggling business model. To do so we need international cooperation and that's what we're working very hard on to do," he said.

Christmas Island residents, who frantically tried to rescue screaming women and children from the stormy seas, have asked why the boat was allowed to sail so close to the island's jagged rocks when its location would have been known to the navy and customs boats which took part in the rescue.

"How did this happen? We just don't understand," asked Pamela Curr, from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. "We have a huge surveillance operation... we have a very efficient border security operation out there."

Australia's conservative opposition called the shipwreck a "terrible human tragedy" but flagged it would pursue the government over the incident.

"Clearly people will want to know how did it happen and could it have been prevented. I am sure there will be many questions to be answered by the government," said deputy opposition leader Julie Bishop.

First Published: Dec 16, 2010 08:36 IST