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.

People climb on the rocky shore on Christmas Island during a rescue attempt as a boat breaks up in the background on Dec. 15.

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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.

Today's tragedy may bolster Ms. Giddard's argument that a processing center abroad would help deter human traffickers who profit from the trade and also find a solution for refugees who get stuck in Indonesia. Already today, calls have come for the government to close the processing center on Christmas Island.

''If the Australian government was willing to properly process asylum seekers in Indonesia and resettle successful refugees in Australia, then far fewer people would get on boats to travel to Australia," Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition told The Australian.

The Australian government has also come under fire today for poor emergency planning on Christmas Island. Christmas Island resident Allison Millcock put the blame squarely at the foot of human traffickers. "They are absolute criminals," she told The Australian.

Ms. Millcock was one of many locals who rushed to the scene to offer assistance today. But with 15-foot swells smashing the boat against the coast of Christmas Island, there was little residents could do.

"Everyone was standing on the rocks. They were getting as close as they could [to the boat] and throwing in life jackets," islander Ally McNabb, who ran down to the rocks to help with the rescue at 6:30 a.m. today, told The Sydney Morning Herald.

“Babies, children maybe three or four years old, they were hanging on to bits of timber, they were screaming 'help, help, help,' we were throwing life jackets out to them but many of them couldn't swim a few meters to reach them,” Christmas Island councilor Kamar Ismail told the Herald. "If we were to jump in [to the water] we would have died ourselves,” he added.

If the processing center there is closed, as Prime Minister Giddard has suggested doing, the island may face the same fate as Nauru. The Monitor reported in 2008 on the economic difficulties in Nauru since that year's closure of the processing camp, which had been the island’s main source of income.

“Nauru has an air of forlorn neglect,” the reporter found, perhaps foreshadowing the future of Christmas Island.

In 2007 the Australian government banned the expansion of phosphate mining on Christmas Island, a key livelihood for the 1,200 islanders, in an effort to preserve the unique wildlife and ecosystem. But this also put more economic dependency on the asylum-processing center.

An eyewitness posted the following video on YouTube.

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