Boat crash renews asylum debate

Pressure mounts on Australia's government to review its approach in dealing with asylum seekers.

    Australia's asylum policy has been a divisive issue for many years [File: EPA]

    The deaths of 28 asylum seekers, who drowned when their boat was smashed on rocks on Christmas
    Island, has renewed pressure on Julia Gillard, the Australian prime minister, to review Australia's asylum policy and may strain her one-seat minority government.

    On Thursday, Gillard conceded that one of the country's most divisive political issues, which has determined past elections, was once again on the agenda.

    "Inevitably there will be public debate relating to asylum seekers and refugees. I am in favour of frank and open national conversations about policy," she said.

    Gillard also announced that a bi-partisan political group would review all reports into Wednesday's incident and advise on any changes to the asylum policy.

    "I believe this bi-partisan reporting mechanism will assist the whole parliament and the Australian people to understand the facts," she told a news conference.

    Rob Oakeshott, an independent MP, whose support won Gillard's Labor government a second term in August, had earlier demanded that she explain why the Indonesian timber boat was not intercepted in open seas, like other asylum boats.

    'More humane' approach 

    Australia's Greens party, another key member of Gillard's minority government, has also renewed calls for a "more humane" approach to asylum seekers, as well as the establishment of a regional asylum processing centre.

    But according to analysts, both Oakeshott and the Greens, who favour a softer line on asylum policy, are not expected to risk the government's future, although Gillard will need to balance their concerns with those of other Labor politicians.

    "Rumours and allegations are shooting through communities ... with the worst being that government authorities allowed this to happen," Oakeshott said in a statement.

    "These rumours must be addressed head on. Leadership must make a detailed and comprehensive statement of exactly what happened and why it happened."

    Gillard said bad weather meant the ill-fated boat was not detected until it was in trouble, but added all the facts would not be clear until police and custom and border protection agencies held inquiries.

    "Once the facts are know then we can have a policy debate," she said.

    The issue of how to handle boat people arrivals, while small in number compared with those crossing the Mediterranean to Europe, is an emotive subject in Australia and was a major issue at August national elections.

    Gillard has previously proposed a regional asylum processing centre, possibly in East Timor, to curb boat people arrivals.

    More than 130 boats arrived in 2010.

    In 2001, then Prime Minister John Howard led his conservative government to victory at elections solely on the policy of tougher border protection and stopping boat people.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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