27 June 2012

Second boat sinks as immigration row intensifies

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Just one week after an asylum seeking boat carrying an estimated 200 people capsized in Indonesian waters, killing as many as 90 people, a second boat carrying 150 women and children has capsized, sending the accompanying political debate into overdrive.

Australian immigration

While the second boat's capsizing didn't result in a similar disaster as last week, it has brought the ongoing politicial argument to an even greater intensity.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard informed the parliament that Australian immigration authorities were contacted by a person on the boat informing them that an asylum seeking vessel was in distress 107 nautical miles north of Christmas Island. Ms Gillard said two merchant vessels responded to a call by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and the first on the scene reported that the boat was sinking and people were in the water, although many were wearing life jackets.

Ms Gillard said there were between 123 and 133 onboard, thought to be all women and children, and that only one death had been confirmed.

"There is reason to believe that there are around 123 to 133 people on board. My best advice is that 123 people have been rescued," said the prime minister.

The news that a second disaster has been avoided will be extremely welcome as the boat's capsizing comes just one week after another boat, possibly carrying the male relatives of today's vessel, capsized in a similar location. Just 110 of the estimated 200 people onboard were rescued.

Politics

Last week's disaster prompted outcry at politicians' inability to find a suitable deterrent to the ongoing issue; asylum seeking boats have been arriving at record levels in recent weeks yet politicians from the two largest parties, the governing Labor Party and the opposition Coalition, have remained in a deadlock over negotiations since the start of the year.

The government proposed a people swap deal with Malaysia which would see 800 new arrivals being exchanged with Malaysia for 4,000 certified refugees. The deal was struck down by the High Court last year and now requires the opposition to assist in updating legislation to allow the so-called Malaysia Solution to pass.

The opposition favours reinstating tougher policies from the previous Coalition-led Howard government which saw boat arrivals drop to almost zero. Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott has previously stated he would make 'turning the boats back' a core policy of his immigration policy and would reinstate the temporary protection visa policy and reopen the offshore processing centre on Nauru, policies which were abandoned when the Howard government was defeated by the Labor Party in 2007.

Progress

Ms Gillard offered to re-enter negotiations after last week's disaster but was rebuffed by Mr Abbott who claimed his party's policies were not the issue and the government's refusal to reinstate proven policies was the main catalyst in encouraging more boats to risk the journey.

However, Mr Abbott has been criticised by independent MPs as well as some from within his own party. A cross-parliamentary group has since been set up in response to the capsizing of last week's boat in order to urge politicians to reach a suitable compromise.

"[The sinking today] just shows the urgency of the matter," said the group's founder, Labor backbencher Steve Georganas.

"It will increase the pressure on both sides to come up with a solution."

Mr Georganas' fellow Labor backbencher, Graham Perrett, said he every politician in the parliament contributed to the deaths, blaming their failure to negotiate a solution.

"When you feel complicit in it, it brings out the emotions," said Mr Perrett.

"I hold all 150 members of the parliament equally responsible for the position of the parliament on this."

In an effort to break the deadlock, Ms Gillard has put the government's preferred solution before the parliament for a vote, although she has barred a similar vote on her opponents' proposal.

"I don't believe members of the parliament should now just sit here with possibly more tragedy to come," said Ms Gillard.

Ms Gillard said a bill put forward by independent MP Rob Oakeshott, which would allow offshore processing in any of the 50 countries committed to the Bali Process, an organisation committed to fighting human trafficking, presented the best possible chance of a solution.

"I think it is of significance that it is a bill brought to this place by an independent member of parliament," Ms Gillard said. "I believe the bill by Mr Oakeshott may be in a position to command a majority here in the House of Representatives.

"I think it would be good to go from this place and say no one won, no one lost. It wasn't about party politics we just wanted to get something done."

Resistance

The government's offer to re-enter negotiations has previously been rejected by Mr Abbott and the Coalition, who have claimed that it is merely the same plan on offer and that they will not be party to offshore processing in a third party country which has not ratified the UN's Refugee Convention.

Opposition immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison said both the Malaysia Solution and Mr Oakeshott's proposal removed international protection for asylum seekers.

"This bill, as with the government's bill, seeks to remove the legally binding human rights protections in the [Refugee Convention]," said Mr Morrison.

"The only legally binding litmus test is whether you are a signatory to the Refugee Convention itself, that includes the Philippines, that includes Nauru and it includes many other countries.

"Why is it necessary to abolish human rights protections to simply pass this bill?"

Ms Gillard in her plea to the opposition to come to a compromise said she would reopen the processing centre on Nauru in line with the opposition's plan as well as order an independent review of the temporary protection visa policy.

Mr Abbott said the policy of offshore processing was the common ground between the parties and a common solution could be found, but said he would not allow any solution involving Malaysia to pass while the country was a non-signatory of the Refugee Convention.

"It seems that [offshore processing] is the common ground on which the policy can rest, this is the common ground across the parliament," said Mr Abbott.

"What we have here is an impasse and I am trying to find a policy that is common ground."


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