Boat crash forces look at Australia refugee policy

The deadly crash of a boat full of asylum seekers off an Australian island this week has triggered a blame game.

Blame the cyclone off Christmas Island. Blame the Indonesian people smugglers who loaded the rickety vessel with Iranians, Iraqis and Kurds and set off for Australia. Blame the slow response of rescue teams. But mostly, blame the government for the deaths of at least 30 men, women and children.

"The Gillard government has blood on its hands," Herald Sun newspaper columnist Andrew Bolt wrote, calling for Prime Minister Julia Gillard to resign. "These tragic drownings at Christmas Island are a direct result of her reckless boat people policies."

Police divers pulled two bodies from the sunken wreckage Friday, raising the confirmed death toll to 30. Gillard said it was unlikely more survivors would be found, two days after the wooden boat smashed into craggy cliffs, splintering to pieces and tossing the passengers into treacherous waves. Forty-two survived.

The tragedy has once again put the spotlight on the three-year-old Labor government's struggle to come up with an effective refugee policy. Critics on both sides say the current approach encourages asylum seekers to undertake perilous sea journeys.

When the Labor Party swept to power in late 2007, it relaxed the previous government's strict refugee laws as part of an effort to forge a fairer and more humane process.

Since then, boat arrivals have increased steadily. More than 120 carrying at least 6,000 people landed in 2010, the highest in 20 years.

The opposition Liberal Party blames the policy shift, while the Labor government contends that unrest in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka is behind the surge.

Whatever the reason, detention centers are overcrowded, and a huge backlog of refugee applications has built up.

The government's response, on what is a politically charged issue that could bring it down, has seemed confused.

In April, Australia temporarily suspended processing applications from Afghans and Sri Lankans, stating that those countries were becoming safer. Human rights groups criticized the decision, and the suspensions were eventually lifted.

Most remarkably, Gillard proposed a regional processing center in a third country — mimicking the former Liberal government's "Pacific Solution" in which Australia paid the tiny island country of Nauru to host a detention center.

Even refugee advocates blame the prime minister, saying she hasn't gone far enough.

"The government's policies at the moment are pushing people to get on boats," said Ian Rintoul, a spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition. "If the Australian government would process asylum seekers in Indonesia and guarantee them resettlement here, and stop pressuring Indonesia to detain them, then people wouldn't feel pressed into getting on boats to travel to Australia."

While the number of asylum seekers arriving by sea is far less than those who fly in, the boat people draw the most attention and ire.

Typically they pay up to $10,000 to smugglers, who bring them by various routes to Indonesia and then cram them into often barely seaworthy boats bound for Australia.

In 2001, a Liberal government under Prime Minister John Howard imposed strict laws that included mandatory detention for asylum seekers, offshore detention centers and only temporary visas for those who were granted refugee status. The boats largely stopped coming.

The Liberals, now in opposition, typically demand the government tighten its policies to deter would-be refugees. But in the wake of Wednesday's horrific tragedy, their response so far has been muted.

Gillard invited all political parties to join a group that would manage the response to the disaster and thanked the Liberal Party for its "responsible" public comments — meaning it had refrained from criticizing the government.

The Liberals rejected the multiparty committee.

"It is for the government to manage these matters," Scott Morrison, the immigration spokesman for the opposition, told reporters. "Governments are elected to take charge of these matters."

Refugee advocates urged Gillard to simplify the refugee process further. Rintoul said Australia could eliminate overcrowding at detention centers by accepting more refugees. Currently the country takes 13,500 annually, down from 21,000 a decade ago.

Hassan Varasi, head of the United Afghan Association of South Australia, expects politicians will join the blame game when they start talking about the crash.

"They're looking for political point-scoring when the truth is that people are going to flee terrible circumstances in their home countries no matter what," said Varasi, who came by boat in 2001. "You'll do anything to save your life, even risking it on one of those boats."