Christmas Island Boat Tragedy Fuels Debate Over Australian Policy on Asylum Seekers

Stephen Kurczy, Christian Science Monitor, December 15, 2010

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Today’s tragedy [in which at least 27 refugees died when their boast broke apart on the rocks] 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.”

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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. {snip}

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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.

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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.

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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.

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