Australia signals harder line on asylum seekers following Christmas Island tragedy

Refugee advocates fear Australia will get even tougher on asylum seekers following the Christmas Island shipwreck, which killed at least 30 refugees – many from Iran and Iraq.

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    People watch from the rocky shore on Christmas Island during a rescue attempt as a boat breaks up in the background on Dec. 15. Australian refugee advocates expect Wednesday’s shipwreck to tighten the country's already strict immigration policies on asylum seekers.
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Australian refugee advocates expect Wednesday’s shipwreck off Christmas Island to tighten the country's already strict immigration policies on asylum seekers.

To be sure, Australians responded with sympathy to photos this week in local newspapers of Iranian and Iraqi asylum seekers clinging to the wreckage of their rickety boat in a botched attempt to reach Australia's Christmas Island. But the solution favored by many here appears to be a measure of what they see as tough love: To discourage asylum seekers from risking their lives, the government should take a harder line on people smugglers and illegal immigration.

In the wake of the Christmas Island tragedy, which resulted in the death of at least 30 people, including eight children, Australia’s ruling Labor Party has announced a complete review of its border protection policies. This will include investigating whether immigration processing facilities should continue to be housed on offshore Australian territories such as Christmas Island, located in the Indian Ocean some 1,600 miles northwest of the Western Australian capital city of Perth and 220 miles south of the Indonesian capital of Jakarta.

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An online poll run on Friday by the Herald-Sun, the country’s largest daily newspaper, found that less than 12 percent of some 18,000 respondents supported the proposition that Australia should “open the door to asylum seekers to prevent further tragedies.”

Australia's already tough policy set to get tougher

Refugee advocates fear the government will bow to calls to get tough on boat people and reinstate measures introduced by the former conservative government under the controversial "Pacific Solution." Australia already runs one of the toughest asylum seeker programs in the developed world.

“I think we can all be pretty confident that we will now see more restrictive polices introduced,” says Khalid Koser, a nonresident fellow at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank. “Already you can see a lot of talk in the media that this tragedy would not have happened under the Pacific Solution. But a much more comprehensive and long-term package is required to deal with the issue. This is now likely to be pushed aside and the focus will be on tougher measures.”

The "Pacific Solution" was introduced in 2001 by the former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, who set up offshore immigration detention camps. Supporters claim the policy was responsible for a dramatic fall in the number of boat people entering Australian waters. However, it was widely condemned by human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

When Labor took federal power in 2007, the tough political rhetoric on boat people was toned down, visa restrictions on refugees were eased, and a number of off-shore detention facilities were closed with detainees transferred to the mainland. Government critics charge these moves are behind a recent surge in boat people to Australia – this year some 6,232 asylum seekers have arrived by boat compared with 148 in 2007. Refugee advocates maintain the increase has more to do with “push” factors in asylum seekers’ countries of origin.

Since Wednesday's shipwreck, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has committed herself to mandatory detention of asylum seekers, along with an election campaign proposal to set up a refugee processing hub in East Timor. This comes despite the fact that East Timor has previously rejected the idea. Critics have dubbed the proposal the “Timor Solution.”

“I can’t say that this incident will promote a more humane treatment of asylum seekers,” says Ian Rintoul, spokesman for Refugee Action Coalition. “I think it will only be a matter of time before both sides of government are associating themselves with the harsh policies which brought about this situation in the first place.”

Although asylum seekers arriving by boat make up less than 2 percent of Australia’s annual immigrant intake, the issue has emerged as one of the country’s most divisive over the past decade.

It has been particularly damaging for the ruling Labor Party, which is torn between left-wing factions that urge a more compassionate approach to asylum seekers and right-wing strategists who hold the Australian public demands a tough-on-boat people stance, including mandatory detention on offshore processing areas.

“Labor is really struggling on border security issues,” political analyst Nick Economou, from Melbourne’s Monash University, told Reuters this week. “The government raised expectations that they would stop the boat arrivals, but their policy is a complete mess.”

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