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Boat tragedy adds new fuel to Australia asylum debate

June 22, 2012 | 12:17 pm

Asylum seekers

With scores of people still missing from a boat that capsized Thursday on its way to Australia, the country is agonizing again over how to handle asylum seekers who come pleading for help.

Though Australia fields fewer refugees than smaller countries such as Austria or the Netherlands, the debate has been a political football over whether people fleeing other countries by boat should be allowed onto Australian soil while their claims are assessed.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard had sought to use offshore centers to process boat refugees, arguing that step would undercut the smuggling trade. Under her proposed “Malaysia Solution,” hundreds of asylum seekers who arrived on boats would be sent to Malaysia, while thousands of people in Malaysia who were already approved by the United Nations refugee agency would be resettled in Australia.

The message was simple: If you don’t use the right channels, you won’t be allowed in easily.

“The Malaysia arrangement represented a very effective way of removing incentives for people to travel in an irregular manner,” Andrew Metcalfe, secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, told the Canberra Times.

The plan was dogged by objections big and small. Leftists slammed the deal for sending refugees to a repressive “human rights pariah,” arguing that Australia was simply trying to dodge its obligations to accept refugees on its soil. Others argued that refugees should be sent instead to the island of Nauru or other countries that had signed the United Nations' convention on refugees.

An Australian high court ruled against the plan last year, stopping offshore processing, because refugees sent to Malaysia might risk being sent to somewhere unsafe. Gillard argued that the court decision -- and political opposition to the plan -- would only encourage more people to risk their lives at sea.

Currently, people who arrive in Australia are processed inside the country. Those deemed as a safety or health threat are held in detention centers.

"Our office in Canberra welcomed this decision," said Andrej Mahecic, spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency. "Asylum seekers who live in the community while their claims are being assessed can cope far better than those held in detention."

But as Australians greet the grave news that an estimated 90 people are still missing from the boat that capsized south of Indonesia, with few now expected to be saved, the political blame game has continued. People on both sides of the debate argue that the current system is faulty.

The Australian editorialized Saturday that “desperate people die as politicians dither,” pressing for offshore processing along with other measures, including quicker processing of refugees. The Malaysia plan was insufficient, it argued. Others said it showed that the Malaysia Solution should be revived.

"Let's put that back on the table,'' lawmaker Mal Walsher said, according to the Australian.

Other Australians argued that the tragedy was a testament to why the government should make it easier for people to enter the country safely while their claims are processed. Refugees often languish years in distant camps, making dangerous trips at sea seem more tempting, they argued.

Lives could be saved if Australia focused on addressing refugee claims more quickly instead of arguing over where to send them, said Ian Rintoul, spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition.

In the wake of the tragedy, the U.N. refugee agency urged Australia and other countries in the region to come up with a solution, saying the accident "reinforces the need for renewed international solidarity and cooperation to find protection options for people that would help to reduce the need for these perilous journeys by boat." But it didn't say what those solutions should be.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Asylum seekers arrive at Christmas Island after the boat they were traveling on capsized. Credit: Rossbach / Krepp/EPA

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