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Australia lawmakers deadlock on sending asylum-seekers elsewhere

June 28, 2012 | 11:00 am


The horror of desperate people drowning at sea as they flee their countries for Australia aboard rickety boats has jolted that country again. Something must be done to stop people from risking their lives, Australian politicians and pundits pleaded after the second such disaster in less than a week.

But Australian lawmakers are split over what to do, as the latest bill aimed at halting the boats failed Thursday after hours of impassioned debate. The chief idea that has been championed to help the needy refugees remains a disputed one: Send them somewhere else.

The idea of "offshore processing" -- sending people who come by boat to another country to have their cases considered -- has dominated the Australian debate over asylum-seekers. Pushing refugees elsewhere is meant to dissuade them from risking their lives to get to Australia.

Smuggling would be stopped, the government argued. "We can break the business model of the people smugglers and we have a duty to do so," Foreign Minister Bob Carr told Australian lawmakers.

Australia has tried it before: More than a decade ago, the country started sending asylum-seekers who arrived by boat to remote islands such as the country of Nauru, where their cases would be processed before deciding if they could move on to Australia. Boats were also stopped and sent back to Indonesia if seaworthy.

Rerouting refugees to Nauru was credited for cutting the number of people coming to Australia by boat. The annual number of boat refugees fell from upward of 4,000 to under 100, though experts disagree on whether the practice turned people away or other factors were behind the drop. Human rights groups argued that the scheme was a twisted way of dodging its obligation to help refugees.

The plan was scrapped when the Labor Party came to power, concerned that the isolated camps where refugees might languish for years were inhumane. But when more boats came to Australia, the government was pressed to come up with a new solution.

Its gaze has turned offshore again. Prime Minister Julia Gillard favors a plan that would send boat refugees to Malaysia, while Malaysia sent refugees who had already been processed by the United Nations to Australia -- a refugee swap.

The opposition rejected the idea because Malaysia has not signed a U.N. convention to protect refugees and has pushed for refugees to be sent to Nauru instead. The top court in Australia also threw a wrench into the idea last year, ruling that sending refugees to Malaysia could put them in danger.

Neither the Malaysia nor Nauru plans can win the day on its own because the smaller but politically pivotal Green Party rejects the idea of offshore processing entirely. The latest bill, which would have sent asylum-seekers to Malaysia, Nauru and elsewhere was defeated Thursday in the Senate.

"It’s become a test of will between Gillard and Tony Abbott," the conservative populist who leads the opposition, said La Trobe University professor Robert Manne. "Abbott is totally unwilling to compromise because he thinks the issue will be a vote-winner in the next election. And if Gillard capitulated and accepted the Nauru solution, Abbott would crow it was a political victory."

The tortuous debate has put Australian politicians in curious positions, said Binoy Kampmark, a lecturer in the School of Global Studies at RMIT University. Abbott, long seen as taking a hard line on refugees, has been railing over human rights in Malaysia. Gillard, whose party claims to be progressive, is pushing to send people there.

Refugee advocates are unhappy that the debate has focused on turning boats away. "The real answer to this is not to see who can be the nastiest," said James Hathaway, director of the refugee and asylum law program at the University of Michigan. "It’s a race to the bottom between the two parties."

Although Australia receives fewer refugees than smaller countries such as Austria or the Netherlands, and even fewer come by boat, the idea has obsessed the Australian public.

"Australia has this traditional fear of invasion," Kampmark said. "They like the idea of well-dressed refugees arriving on a plane. They do not like the idea of being besieged by the sea."

Yet backers of offshore processing insist that their plan is actually a compassionate one, the best way to stop more deaths at sea. "We're just going to have more people drown in the panic to get more on boats while we equivocate,'' lawmaker Mal Washer lamented to the Sydney Morning Herald.


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: This photo released by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority shows a boat carrying asylum-seekers 120 miles north of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean hours before capsizing Wednesday. Credit: Associated Press / Australian Maritime Safety Authority