Australia refugee boat disaster sparks row

2012-06-26 10:03


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Sydney - Hopes of a compromise to break the deadlock in Australia on its boatpeople policy faded on Tuesday with politicians trading insults after the latest tragedy left up to 90 people dead.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard offered the opposition conservative coalition fresh talks aimed at narrowing their differences on asylum-seekers, but opposition Leader Tony Abbott showed no interest in accepting.

"I think the prime minister is playing politics with the best of them," Abbott told the Seven Network.

"The prime minister just wants us to accept a dud deal. She hasn't moved on at all."

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 to Australia.

But Gillard's fragile coalition government was unable to pass the required legislation through parliament without the support of the opposition amid concerns that Malaysia was not a signatory to UN refugee conventions.

Bodies missing

The debate was reignited after a boat carrying about 200 people sank on its way to Australia last Thursday.

Rescuers managed to save 110 people and 17 bodies have been recovered, but no other survivors have been found. It was the latest in a series of refugee boat disasters in the Indian Ocean in recent years.

Both sides of Australian politics support offshore processing of asylum-seekers but differ on where it should be conducted.

The Labour government has offered to adopt elements of the opposition's policy, including re-opening a detention centre on Nauru in the Pacific, if it supports a bill that would allow its Malaysian deal to go ahead.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen blasted Abbott for rejecting a good-faith offer from the government to talk "out of hand without one single centimetre of compromise".

Another Labour MP, parliamentary secretary Mark Dreyfus, accused Abbott of taking political advantage of asylum-seekers dying at sea.

Gillard 'insincere'

"It's disgraceful the way in which he [Abbott] is approaching this," Dreyfus told reporters.

"You're left thinking that he sees political advantage in people dying. That's the real disgrace of this."

Abbott said Gillard was not being sincere.

"She hasn't picked up the phone. She hasn't dropped me a line. There hasn't been an e-mail," he said.

Though they come in relatively small numbers by global standards, asylum-seekers are a sensitive political issue in Australia, dominating 2010 elections due to a record 6 555 arrivals.

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