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Asylum Boat Tragedy Victims Buried in Australia

  • Phil Mercer

People clamber on the rocky shore on Christmas Island during a rescue attempt as a boat breaks up in the background, December 16, 2010

People clamber on the rocky shore on Christmas Island during a rescue attempt as a boat breaks up in the background, December 16, 2010

The first funerals for victims of a Christmas Island shipwreck have been held in Australia. About 50 people, who had hoped to find asylum, died when their boat smashed into rocks off the remote Australian territory in December.

The government runs a large detention center for migrants who try to enter Australia illegally by sea.

The first shipwreck victims to be buried were two babies and an Iranian man. They were laid to rest in a Muslim ceremony at a cemetery in Sydney.

The services were in Australia’s most populous city at the request of relatives. For some, the pain of the final farewell was overwhelming and family members wailed during the funeral.

The West Australian coroner has held the bodies that were recovered, while police continue to investigate the tragedy. Seventeen victims have been identified and their bodies released to their families.

The government flew 22 asylum seekers from detention centers on Christmas Island and in Perth to Sydney for the burials.

The conservative opposition criticized the government's decision to pay for the trip.

The opposition's immigration spokesman Scott Morrison says the services could have been held on Christmas Island.

"The government had the option of having these services on Christmas Island. If relatives of those who were involved wanted to go to Christmas Island, like any other Australian who wanted to attend a funeral service in another part of the country, they would have made their own arrangements to be there," Morrison said.

The bodies of five of the victims are being sent to their families overseas, and 17 were flown to Sydney last week.

The coroner still holds the remains of 13 unidentified asylum seekers.

Three Indonesian men accused of being involved in the boat tragedy appeared in court in Perth Tuesday.

They face charges of people smuggling. They are being held in jail and will appear in court again in May.

The shipwreck fueled a debate in Australia over immigration.

Opposition politicians accuse the government of neglecting border security, which they say has encouraged a steady flow of asylum seekers arriving by boat in the past year. The Labor government says that conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka fueled the rise in unauthorized arrivals.

Canberra grants refugee visas to about 13,000 displaced people a year under various international accords. Those caught trying to enter illegally, however, are detained until their asylum applications can be processed.

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