Political furore after refugees drown on way to Australia

November 3rd, 2009 - 11:25 am ICT by IANS  

Kevin Rudd Sydney, Nov 3 (DPA) A heated debate broke out in Australia Tuesday over the government’s refugee policy after a boat carrying 39 asylum seekers sank in the Indian Ocean with 12 feared drowned.
Australian rescue planes and vessels raced to the remote site in the Indian Ocean Monday, looking for survivors.

A Taiwanese fishing boat and a Bahamas-registered gas tanker rescued 27 of those on board, believed to be Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, but despite search planes flying 2,900 km from Australia to reach the search area 650 km from remote Cocos Island, 11 people remain missing. One body was found Tuesday.

A Japanese fishing vessel joined the search as the Taiwanese boat had to leave to refuel.

The maritime tragedy turned into a political wrangle in Canberra when senior conservative opposition frontbencher Tony Abbott blamed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s border protection policies for the loss of life.

Abbott said the refugees would not be trying to reach Australia in leaky boats if the government had a tougher policy which deterred them from trying to reach Australia.

The boat was sailing towards Australia well out to sea and keeping clear of Indonesian islands where they might be detained.

The Rudd government has signed a deal with Indonesia to take refugees picked up in their waters and keep them in camps until their refugee status is processed.

An Australian customs ship, Oceanic Viking, that rescued 78 Sri Lankan refugees three weeks ago, remains moored off Indonesia. It is caught in a two-week standoff with the asylum seekers on board who refuse to go ashore, and demand to be taken to Australia.

“You look at this terrible tragedy that’s unfolding in the Indian Ocean at the moment and you’ve got to say this is a comprehensive failure and it’s all the prime minister’s fault,” Abbott told a Sydney radio station.

“What’s so moral about policies which encourage people to take to the sea in leaky boats and give us the kind of tragedy that seems to be unfolding now in the Indian Ocean?” Abbott said.

Opinion polls Tuesday showed support for Rudd’s government fell seven points over the past two weeks as stories of boat refugees dominated the news, to 41 percent, putting it level with the opposition which wants a tougher policy of not allowing boat refugees to reach Australian soil.

Rudd said he would not change government policies. “There are many hard decisions before the government,” Rudd said. “I understand that it won’t necessarily be popular. People from the right of politics won’t like it. People from the left of politics won’t like it but my job is to get on with the business of doing it.”

But former liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser said a hardline policy was inhumane.

“Both parties, the government and opposition seem to be competing as to who can be toughest,” Fraser told ABC Radio.

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