Adelaide, Australia - Prime Minister Tony Abbott has urged European leaders to urgently implement harsh border-protection policies to "stop the boats" after hundreds of refugees drowned off the coast of Italy.

Hundreds of asylum seekers have died at sea trying to reach Australia over the years, and the country has implemented strong policies to deter the flow of migrants. These include locking people up in controversial detention centres, where thousands linger in limbo, and towing boats back out of Australian waters. 

A rescuer carries a child after a boat carrying asylum seekers sank in Indonesian waters on the way to Australia [AP]

At a press conference in the capital Canberra on Tuesday, Abbott described what was happening in the Mediterranean as a "terrible, terrible tragedy", insisting the EU must act.

"The only way you can stop the deaths is to stop the people-smuggling trade. The only way you can stop the deaths is, in fact, to stop the boats," Abbott said.

"That's why it is so urgent that the countries of Europe adopt very strong policies that will end the people-smuggling trade across the Mediterranean."

Resettlement from Nauru

The comments come as Australia has been preparing to act on a deal forged with Cambodia to resettle asylum seekers it holds in offshore detention centres to the developing Southeast Asian nation. Under the agreement, Cambodia has agreed to accept any refugees who agree to be transferred, in return for $40m in aid.

One of Australia's more notorious detention centres is on the Pacific island nation of Nauru. The government has said the process of moving migrants from there to Cambodia could begin as early as this week.

Members of the legal profession and refugee advocates have been heavily critical of Australia's deal with Cambodia. 

"The major issue is the arrogance of a wealthy Western country sending refugees to a developing country," human rights lawyer Claire O'Connor told Al Jazeera. 

"We're taking mostly young, damaged people and we're stamping out a whole life for them and sending them to an environment where they're not going to be able to live."

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the Australian government remains "committed" to seeing the deal through, adding "the first group of volunteers is anticipated to depart for Cambodia in the near future".

'Political fix'

But many asylum seekers and refugees have so far refused to volunteer - a potentially expensive headache for the Australian government, as the agreement with Cambodia requires it to pay the $40m whether or not any transfers occur.

Tony Abbott [Getty Images]

"[The government] has a very difficult political problem on their hands with Nauru and the whole situation with Cambodia is an embarrassment that they're trying to fix with these offers of resettlement," Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition said.

"Cambodia was always seen as a political fix, but of course no one's interested in going to Cambodia."

In Cambodia, the deal seems to have been received poorly in a country struggling with widespread corruption and 17.7 percent of its population living in poverty.

Cambodia also has a troubling human rights record, according to Human Rights Watch, with a history of violent retaliation against the country's labour movement.

Its track record on refugees isn't much better. This year, Cambodia forcibly deported 40 Montagnard refugees to neighbouring Vietnam, where they are a persecuted minority.

"It is cruel and inhumane of Australia to send refugees to Cambodia from Nauru," said Elaine Pearson, Australian director of Human Rights Watch.

"Cambodia has an atrocious human rights record - police commit abuses with impunity, activists are frequently locked up for peaceful protests, and more than half a million people have been affected by illegal land seizures."

Still, the immigration department has been trying to drum up support among detainees with a "fact sheet" that started circulating last week.

It describes Cambodia as a safe country where work, education, and healthcare are available and where refugees will be supported in their transition.

According to the factsheet: "Cambodia is a safe country, where police maintain law and order. It does not have problems with violent crime or stray dogs."

However, the information is contradicted by Cambodia's country profile on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website.

The profile noted Cambodia's justice system "remains weak", and "a culture of impunity" pervades the country's police and security forces".

The Migration Act will, in effect, result in guards being authorised to beat asylum seekers in detention to death.

Charles Stephens, former Supreme Court judge

It also described Cambodia as "mostly ethnically homogeneous" and said it, "remains one of the world's least developed countries".

Inflicting grievous bodily harm

The past three months have been rough for the Australian government on refugee policy.

Last week, former Supreme Court judge Charles Stephens told a Senate Committee the government's proposed change to the Migration Act would effectively allow detention centre guards to inflict deadly violence on inmates without legal recourse.

"These amendments to the Migration Act will, in effect, result in guards being authorised to beat asylum seekers in detention to death, on the basis that they reasonably believe it is necessary - for some reason - to do so," Stephens said.

"What I have seen suggests that there is not very much at all in the way of governance controls, and the absence of any real ability to take action against the officers who misbehave is, I fear, going to be a considerable encouragement to violence on their part."

The new bill aims to remove liability for guards in detention centres, including contractors, by allowing them to inflict grievous bodily harm where the officer "reasonably believes" it is needed to protect the life of another.

In his testimony, Stephens also said the language of the proposed change is similar to US provisions that have made it difficult to prosecute police officers in the wake of high-profile shootings, such as that of Walter Scott.

Meanwhile, the government has also been plagued by last month's findings of the Moss Review into conditions in offshore detention centres, which found allegations by detainees of rape, sexual abuse against children, and drug trafficking had a solid factual basis.

This finding came off the back of another Human Rights Commission report in February that criticised the government over the impact its detention regime was having on children.

It found detained children had suffered repeated incidents of assault, sexual assault, and widespread self-harm. Some had been denied access to education for a year and suffered high rates of mental illness.

 Child asylum seekers abused

The government's reaction was scathing. The prime minister and other senior ministers publicly attacked the report's author and head of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, while labelling the report itself "blatantly partisan" and a "political stitch up".

But the attack on Triggs largely backfired among the Australian public, particularly when it emerged that Attorney General George Brandis had offered her another job in an effort to remove her as head of the Human Rights Commission.

While Europe looks for solutions to its migration issue, the Australian experience shows there are no quick fixes.

Source: Al Jazeera