CANBERRA, Australia – Australian senators on Thursday rejected laws that would have let Australia deport asylum seekers to another country as a way of discouraging them from attempting the long, dangerous boat journeys.
The legislation had scraped through the House of Representatives 74-72 late Wednesday after six hours of passionate debate, amplified by two deadly capsizings of boats filled with Australia-bound migrants in the past week. But the Senate rejected the bill 39 votes to 29 after sometimes tearful arguments.
Four people are believed to have died and 130 were rescued from a boat that capsized Wednesday, but more than 90 people are believed to have died in a capsizing last week midway between Australia's Christmas Island and Indonesia.
The legislation would have let the government deport boat arrivals to another country in Southeast Asia or the Pacific. While many lawmakers see that as the best option for stopping such smuggling attempts, they disagree on where the asylum seekers should be sent.
Currently, they stay on Christmas Island while their asylum claims are assessed, although many have been transferred to the Australian mainland in recent months because of overcrowding at the island detention facilities. The survivors of the two most recent boat capsizings are having their claims assessed there.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard had urged senators to pass the legislation before Parliament takes a six-week break. After the vote failed, Gillard accused opposition leader Tony Abbott of making no effort to compromise.
"Mr. Abbott did not move one millimeter at any stage of this ... while people are drowning at sea," she told reporters.
Abbott, however, accused Gillard of displaying "pride and stubbornness."
Both Gillard's center-left Labor Party and the conservative opposition coalition agree that sending asylum seekers to a third country to have their refugee claims assessed is the best option for putting people smugglers out of business and to curb the flow of boats. But they differ on locations.
The government wants to send them to Malaysia as part of a swap in which Australia would resettle U.N.-recognized refugees from Kuala Lumpur.
The opposition rejects Malaysia and any other country that has not signed the U.N. Convention on Refugees, for fear that the asylum seekers' rights will not be respected. The coalition prefers the tiny Pacific atoll of Nauru, where Australia previously had an immigration detention center.
The opposition could not have defeated the measure on its own, but it was joined by the minor Greens party, which is part of Gillard's minority government. The Greens believe Australia should accept all boat arrivals.
The government previously planned to implement the Malaysian deal without Parliament's approval, but in August 2011 the High Court ruled that such a move would be illegal.
Foreign Minister Bob Carr told the Senate the number of boat arrivals slowed from May last year, when the Malaysian deal was announced, but then tripled after the government gave up trying to get enabling legislation through Parliament in October last year.
"We can break the business model of the people smugglers and we have a duty to do so," Carr told the Senate. "The absence of a clear decision is seen as an open door to Australia."