Christmas Island boat tragedy fuels debate over Australian policy on asylum seekers
Australia is struggling to balance humanitarian responsibilities to asylum seekers with national concerns about the economic impact of their migration.
• A news round-up of global reports on security issues.Skip to next paragraph
Israeli general hints at another Gaza campaign
Unclaimed attack on Islamic school raises tension in Nigeria
See no evil? Activists doubt credibility of Arab League mission to Syria.
Arab League observers head to Syria's war-ravaged Homs
Christmas church bombings put global spotlight on 'Nigerian Taliban' (VIDEO)
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
As Australians scrambled to assist in today's rescue of asylum seekers whose boat crashed off the coast of Christmas Island, the deadly incident also brought to the foreground a vexing problem for Australia: How to manage its growing influx of refugees.
At least 27 refugees died in today's boat crash. The Navy rescued 41 people and one man was able to jump – remarkably – from the boat wreckage to the razor-sharp rocks of Christmas Island, where Australia processes asylum seekers. The refugees were reportedly Iraqi and Iranian, although it was unclear where their journey originated.
Today's tragedy on Christmas Island, an Australian territory 1,600 miles northwest of its coast, comes amid debate over how the government should process asylum seekers – and ensure their safety – while respecting citizens' concerns over the economic burden of mass migration.
“Illegal migration has long been a political hot potato in Australia, which has a large number of foreign-born residents and an economy that is increasingly integrated with Asia, but remains uneasy over mass migration,” the Monitor’s Bangkok correspondent, Simon Montlake, recently reported. “Australians argue that their generosity in accepting genuine refugees is being exploited by people smugglers, who profit from the seaborne trade of migrants via transit countries.”
With this being an election year in Australia, and the debate over immigration a hot button among the electorate, the issue only heated up. Such a phenomenon is not limited to Australia, as the Monitor's Sara Miller Llana reported in "Global doors slam shut on immigrants," a recent cover story. "Across continents, countries have closed doors on vulnerable refugees, and, in some places, nativism has reached such heights that urban residents even want their own rural migrants banished outside city limits."
According to newspaper The Australian, today's incident is part of a record-setting year in migrant boat arrivals. Some 6,300 asylum seekers reached Australia on 130 boats in 2010. In 2009, according to a recent report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Australia admitted 11,100 refugees.
Today’s incident was also said to be the worst since the SIEVX (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X) tragedy in 2001, in which 353 asylum seekers lost their lives when their boat sank off the Indonesian coast.
Calls immediately came for a change in the current government policy designating Christmas Island as the principal refugee processing center. In Australia, similar incidents have in the past sparked the government to rethink its policy on asylum seekers.
Following 2001's SIEVX incident and Tampa controversy (when the Australian government prevented 438 asylum seekers from disembarking on Christmas Island), Prime Minister John Howard formulated the so-called "Pacific Solution," which diverted asylum seekers to a camp on the tiny republic of Nauru. Mr. Howard’s successor, Kevin Rudd, closed the Nauru camp in 2008 and began processing refugees who arrived by sea on Christmas Island. Mr. Rudd’s successor, Julia Giddard, has suggested in recent months closing Christmas Island and instead diverting asylum seekers to neighboring East Timor for processing.