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Asylum Disaster Fuels Immigration Debate in Australia

Would-be illegal asylum seekers from Sri Lanka are seen at a police station in Colombo after attempting to sail to Australia illegally by boat, May 28, 2012.
Would-be illegal asylum seekers from Sri Lanka are seen at a police station in Colombo after attempting to sail to Australia illegally by boat, May 28, 2012.
SYDNEY - Australia’s parliament is debating the highly divisive issue of illegal immigration following the drowning of dozens of asylum seekers last week. There is disagreement in Canberra about the most effective way to stem a steady flow of unauthorized arrivals.

The deaths of about 90 asylum seekers lost when their boat capsized in Australia’s northern waters has re-ignited a fiery political debate.

The conservative opposition accuses the Labor government of losing control of Australia’s maritime borders. So far this year, Australian authorities have intercepted more than 4,000 asylum seekers at sea. Most unauthorized arrivals travel from Indonesia, while others have paid trafficking gangs thousandsof dollars to sail from Malaysia and Sri Lanka.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard needs opposition support to bring in policies to open refugee-processing centers in neighboring countries, but says the recent disaster has failed to bring the debate forward.

“We've seen too much loss of life. This is a major tragedy, but it's not the only tragedy that our nation's been witness to. I'm open to further discussions," she said. "I think it was very regrettable that on the weekend the leader of the opposition ruled out any policy changes or shifts by the opposition. I think it is a time where people are looking to us to put the politics to one side."

Opposition leader Tony Abbott will not support the government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Malaysia, in return for Australia accepting thousands of certified refugees from that country.

Abbott argues that asylum seekers should be sent to an Australian-sponsored camp on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru, which has housed detainees in the past.

He has told the parliament in Canberra that he is committed to stopping boats heading to Australia.

"If there is anyone to blame in a tragic situation like this surely it's the people smugglers who prey on desperate people's desire for a better life in Australia," said Abbott. "Obviously, madam deputy speaker, at a time like this all of us consult our consciences on what is the best course of action to take to put the policies in place that will end forever this evil trade. MPs: Hear, hear.”

Australia’s asylum policies have been on hold since the country’s high court ruled last year that the proposed Malaysia people swap deal was unlawful.

The government believes that, with opposition support, the measure can be resurrected, but conservative lawmaker Russell Broadbent says he will not be supporting it.

“The Malaysian solution is people swapping - people swapping on a grand scale. That's us entering into exactly the same thing that people smugglers do," he said. "They swap people for money. We'd be swapping people for a policy outcome. I'm not going to put my name to something that swaps people.”

Australia’s parliament sits this week for its final sessions before a break. Although immigration has dominated proceedings, a compromise deal between the major parties is unlikely.

Independent lawmaker Rob Oakeshott says members of parliament should stay until a workable policy has been put in place.

“The ongoing dysfunction of policy should be making this an urgent issue and you know we're all going home at the end of this week. If we can't resolve it by the end of the week, I'd certainly be one calling for the parliament to continue to sit until this can be resolved," he stated. "We fail the Australian community as a parliament, as have the last four parliaments, in failing the Australian community in not resolving this and it needs to be fixed.”

Australia is working with Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia to try to stem a steady flow of asylum seekers arriving by boat.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd believes only a concerted international effort can stop the flood of desperate people seeking sanctuary in other countries.

“That’s why this has to be tackled globally. We’ve got our responsibilities, but because we don’t see it on TV every night, there is a tragedy every day around the world," said Rudd. "As people seek to escape where they are to find somewhere safer.”

Although there is heated debate in Australia about asylum seekers arriving by boat, the vast majority of people seeking refugee protection in Australia arrive by plane. Overall, the numbers are small compared to other developed countries. Canberra grants refugee visas to about 13,000 applicants each year, under various international treaties.