Attorney-General Nicola Roxon urged opposition leader Tony Abbott to negotiate a compromise on the Malaysia deal.
SYDNEY: Australia’s government on Sunday renewed its call for a refugee swap deal with Malaysia after an asylum seeker boat sank off remote Christmas Island leaving up to around 90 people dead or unaccounted for.
Canberra clinched a deal last year to send 800 boatpeople to Malaysia in exchange for 4,000 of that country’s registered refugees in a bid to deter people-smugglers from the dangerous maritime voyage Down Under.
But Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s fragile coalition government was unable to pass the required legislation through parliament without the support of the opposition and asylum-seekers have continued to risk the voyage, mostly via Indonesia.
“Without the Malaysia solution you’ve got a cobbled together Indonesian solution that is wholly unsatisfactory, it’s not protecting the borders, it’s not saving lives,” Foreign Minister Bob Carr told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Carr’s comments came after Australia suspended the search for more survivors from a people-smuggling boat which capsized in the Indian Ocean between Indonesia and Christmas Island three days ago.
Rescuers reached 110 people in the hours after the boat sank some 109 nautical miles south of the Sunda Strait in Indonesia on Thursday but despite an extensive search, no survivors have been recovered since.
While 17 bodies have been found, an exact death toll may never be known because there were no firm figures on how many had been on board the ship.
Customs officials believe there were about 200 people on board when the boat went down, bringing the total dead and unaccounted for to around 90.
Negotiate a compromise
“I think it really underscores why people should not set off on this incredibly dangerous passage,” Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said as she urged opposition leader Tony Abbott to negotiate a compromise on the Malaysia deal.
“I don’t think we can keep seeing these sorts of human tragedies occurring.”
Abbott, who favours offshore processing of boatpeople on the tiny Pacific island state of Nauru, poured cold water on any kind of compromise.
“The Malaysian people-swap is not offshore processing, it’s offshore dumping,” he told journalists in Melbourne.
“What’s needed here is not compromise for compromise’s sake but policies that work.”
The sunken boat is believed to have originated in Sri Lanka and to have been carrying male mostly Afghan asylum-seekers. Authorities said nine of the survivors were under the age of 18, including a 13-year-old boy.
Authorities warn of the dangerous journey asylum-seekers face when they pay people-smugglers to bring them to Australia, often on overcrowded, wooden boats.
The latest accident is the worst since 2001, when a boat known as the SIEV X sank, killing 353 of the more than 400 people on board.