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Australia Under Fire Over Asylum Policy After Indonesian Boat Sinks

  • Henry Ridgwell

A rescuer carries a child after a boat carrying asylum seekers sank off Java island, in Cianjur, West Java, Indonesia, July 24, 2013.

A rescuer carries a child after a boat carrying asylum seekers sank off Java island, in Cianjur, West Java, Indonesia, July 24, 2013.

Indonesian authorities say 189 asylum seekers were rescued from a sinking boat off the coast Wednesday. Coast guard officials say at least nine people died. The refugees were trying to reach Christmas Island, part of Australia, which has just implemented a new policy blocking asylum applications for migrants arriving by boat.

Exhausted and dehydrated, survivors of the voyage were given shelter Wednesday in the village of Cidaun on West Java in Indonesia. Among them were many children and pregnant women.

Most survivors said they were from Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka. Their boat had set off from Papua New Guinea heading for the Australian territory of Christmas Island.

Last week, Australia signed an agreement stating that asylum seekers who arrive by boat will not be granted settlement in Australia, even if they qualify as refugees, but instead will be sent to Papua New Guinea. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Tuesday’s shipwreck proves the need for a tough policy.

“This underlines the need for policy changes in Australia on asylum seekers, which sends a very clear message to people smugglers to stop sending people by boat to Australia. We are seeing too many drownings, we are seeing too many sinkings, too many people being lost at sea.”

Watch An earlier boat carrying migrants arrived on Christmas Island July 20. The asylum seekers were the first to have their applications processed in Papua New Guinea under the new deal.

The agreement has prompted a wave of protest. Livio Zilli is a refugee lawyer from Amnesty International.

Watch Henry Ridgwell's related report:

“They will be apparently detained indefinitely, we don’t know how long that whole process will last. So we are very concerned for the individuals. Secondly we are concerned because effectively Australia is cherry-picking its international obligations.”

The governor of Oro Province in Papua New Guinea, Gary Juffa, questioned what his country is getting from the deal.

“By accepting this are we really doing as we are told by the Australian government or are we doing this because we feel that we’re assisting Australia? If so, what is the cost, what is the price, what is the benefit?”

Australia will fund a major expansion of the Manus detention center on Papua New Guinea. A recent U.N. report found major shortcomings at the site.
Livio Zilli of Amnesty says Australia must change course.

“Everyone who arrives, no matter how they arrive to Australia or on Australian shores should be given effective access to refugee status procedures in the Australian mainland.”

Australia says more than 15,000 asylum seekers have arrived by boat on Australian territory this year. Since 2001, around 1,000 people have died making the crossing.

The Australian government has produced online videos in several languages -- including Farsi and Vietnamese among others -- warning migrants that they will not be settled in Australia if they arrive by boat.

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