Fatal shipwreck calls Australia's refugee policy into question

The second such incident in less than a week comes on the heels of an announcement that Australia won't accept new boat arrivals.

Daniel Munoz/Reuters
A woman shouts slogans against the Australian Labor Party (ALP) during a rally in support of asylum seekers outside an ALP meeting in Sydney July 22, 2013. Australia announced tough new measures to stem a dramatic increase in refugee boats from Indonesia on Friday, with a deal to send all boat arrivals to Papua New Guinea (PNG) for assessment and eventual settlement. The meeting, to vote on party reforms, is the party's last meeting before federal elections.

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Another boat filled with Australia-bound asylum seekers has sunk off the coast of Indonesia. The incident, which has left at least nine people dead, comes almost two weeks after a similar incident saw the drowning of a 1-year old boy

These most recent tragedies throw Australia’s controversial refugee policy into the spotlight, particularly after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s announcement last week that all refugees arriving by boat would be turned away.

In this latest incident, authorities believe 204 asylum seekers – mainly from Sri Lanka, Iran, and Iraq – boarded a small ship that was only intended to carry 150 passengers in the Indonesian coastal town of Jayanti, reports the Associated Press. The boat, which was headed toward Australia, sank nine hours into the trip. Initial reports indicated that survivors told rescuers there were only about 100 life jackets onboard and that when the boat went down, people who didn't have life jackets clung to pieces of wood.

Indonesia is a popular starting point for refugee hopefuls, as it lies just over 300 miles away from Australia’s Christmas Island.

So far, 189 people have been rescued while nine are confirmed dead, including three children. It is uncertain how many people are still missing. 

Australia is no stranger to tragic incidents involving desperate asylum seekers trying to gain access to the country. Just two weeks ago, a boat carrying almost 100 migrants, many women and children, sank off the coast of Christmas Island, reports The Christian Science Monitor. And a 1-year-old baby boy was among the victims.

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.

Refugee policy is a controversial and oft-debated issue in Australia. The country's history of accepting refugees has come into conflict with concerns over the steep increase in boat arrivals and the implications for Australia’s economy and sovereignty. However, opposition parties have argued that the government's tough stance on the issue has incentivized the use of smugglers, who cram refugees onto boats of dubious quality.

Mr. Rudd announced on July 19, that all refugees arriving in Australia by boat would be transferred to a processing center in Papua New Guinea, where they would remain if their claims were accepted, according to a separate Monitor story last week. More than 15,000 asylum seekers have travelled by boat to Australia this year so far.

Rudd, who came to power last month after unseating former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, has not always held such a hardline position. In 2008, he closed down the offshore refugee processing centers on Nauru and Papua New Guinea that former Prime Minister John Howard had opened as part of his much criticized “Pacific Solution,” wrote the Monitor in 2009. Instead, refugees were diverted to Christmas Island, where their asylum claims were heard on Australian territory.

But in the face of increasing boat arrivals, the Australian government reopened the offshore detention facilities in 2012. Now, Rudd has hardened the already controversial policy, in a move that has been harshly criticized “by human rights groups, with Amnesty International accusing it of shirking its moral obligations to help the world's most vulnerable people,” reports Reuters.

The policy change comes ahead of upcoming elections in November, where the issue of asylum seekers is sure to be important. However, this most recent sinking has not changed Rudd’s stance, according to the BBC.

Mr Rudd said that the sinking underlined the need for a policy shift, saying the government had to send "a very clear message to people-smugglers to stop sending people by boat to Australia."

"We are seeing too many drownings, we are seeing too many sinkings, too many innocent people being lost at sea."

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