Tragedy at sea puts Australia's refugee policies to the test

More than 800 people seeking asylum from places like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka have died on the trip to Australia since 2009, including the recent drowning of a 1-year-old.

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    In this photo taken on April 14, 2013, Australian Customs officials search Vietnamese asylum seekers and their belongings soon after their arrival on Christmas Island, Australia.
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An unnamed 1-year-old baby boy lying in a morgue on an island off the northwestern coast of Australia could be the catalyst for the most far-reaching overhaul of Australia’s asylum-seeker policy since the country signed the United Nations Refugee Convention in 1951.

The 1-year-old’s body was recovered from the sea late last week after an overcrowded fishing boat carrying nearly 100 asylum seekers from Iran, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka sank in the waters off Christmas Island. Eight people still missing from the boat are presumed dead.

Since 2009, more than 800 people have drowned trying to make it to Australia, according to figures from the Department of Immigration. Refugee advocates claim the number is much higher because it doesn’t take into account boats that have disappeared without a trace after setting out from the Indonesian island of Java.

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The child’s death has come to symbolize what critics say is the government’s cruel and inhumane approach to boat arrivals. The opposition has used the death to reinforce its argument that the government’s border protection policy has been a failure and is giving smugglers an incentive to cram hundreds of desperate people on barely seaworthy craft for the dangerous crossing to Christmas Island, the closest Australian territory to Indonesia.

Australia has a long history of accepting refugees and has largely avoided the racially fueled tensions that have plagued countries like France. But frustration with the government's failure to stem the tide of boat people, many of whom come from Muslim countries, and fears that Australia's very sovereignty is being threatened have polarized the electorate. 

This week, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd promised to make it harder for asylum seekers to be granted refugee status. He also hinted that Australia might review its obligations under the UN refugee convention. Prime Minister Rudd is tipped to unveil the new policy in the coming days and capitalize on the announcement to set a date for the next election, which must be held before the end of November. The asylum seeker issue is expected to dominate the election campaign, with pollsters predicting a close race. 

Meanwhile, those on the frontline are at a breaking point. Asylum seekers now outnumber locals by 2 to 1 on tiny Christmas Island, which is located just 220 miles south of Indonesia.

Nearly 4,000 boat arrivals are crammed into the island’s detention centers, which have a contingency capacity for only 2,724. The Australian patrol boat HMAS Bathurst has rescued six boats in the past 11 days carrying a total of 699 people, putting an immense physical and emotional strain on naval personnel.

The death of the child, believed to be from Sri Lanka, prompted the administrator of Christmas Island, John Stanhope, to decry what he said was the dehumanization of the refugee crisis.  ''We have a 1-year-old baby in our mortuary, the child of an asylum seeker family. I wished we named [him] ... I wish we humanized them. I wish we gave them that respect in death,'' Mr. Stanhope told ABC radio.

Seizing on the tragedy, the opposition leader Tony Abbott on Wednesday called the situation a ''national emergency'' and demanded that Mr. Rudd “be man enough” to admit he had his refugee policy wrong.

Sky rocketing asylum seekers

There is no dispute that the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat has skyrocketed since the Labor Party came to power in 2007. The number of boat people rose from 161 individuals in 2007, to 17,202 people in 2012. The first seven months of 2013 have nearly eclipsed that total with 15,182 asylum seekers arriving on 218 boats.

Refugee advocates cite push factors such as the persecution of the minority ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka and Hazaras in Afghanistan and point out that around 90 percent of boat people are found to be genuine refugees.

The opposition blames the Labor government for abandoning temporary protection visas for refugees and of sending asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea and Nauru for processing. It has pledged to turn asylum seeker boats back to Indonesia when it is safe to do so, even though former naval chiefs have called the policy unworkable and the Indonesian government has given no indication it will cooperate.

Rudd, who was reinstated as prime minister late last month, is keen to distance himself from his predecessor Julia Gillard, whose failure to tackle the asylum seeker crisis was blamed for her party’s dismal showing in the polls. (Read more about Julia Gillard's dramatic ousting here)

In the past two weeks he has visited Indonesia and Papua New Guinea seeking their cooperation for a regional solution. He has flagged abolishing refugee review tribunals, which give asylum seekers the right to appeal their initial departmental assessments and to draw up new country assessments that would make it harder for asylum seekers from countries like Iran to qualify for permanent settlement in Australia.

Causing concern

But it is Rudd’s statement that he has the Refugee Convention in his sights that has caused most concern. The Australian government is understood to be in talks with the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees on tightening the way the treaty is applied.

Professor Mirko Bagaric, dean of the law school at Deakin University in Melbourne says the government should withdraw from the UN treaty altogether.

“The people smugglers ... know the Australian government is hooked to the Refugee Convention and they know if they bring the people here, the Australian government must process them. Anything that this government does now that is short of withdrawing from the convention won't fix it.”

But Professor William Maley, director of the Asia Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University in Canberra, disagrees, saying any such move would undermine Australia’s attempts to find a regional solution: “You can’t relieve yourself of your obligations under the Refugee Convention and then go to a country like Indonesia and tell it to do more to share the burden.”

Meanwhile, the latest batch of 120 asylum seekers rescued after their vessel sent out a distress signal on Wednesday were being processed on Christmas Island yesterday. Unlike an earlier incident this week when four people drowned, all made it ashore safely. But naval personnel and immigration staff say it is only matter of time before tragedy strikes again.

As Stanhope points out, the capacity of the island’s morgue has been increased tenfold. “We now have mortuary facilities that will cater for 50 bodies, and that is a statement within itself.”

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