Push for solution after dozens die in asylum tragedy

Push for solution after dozens die in asylum tragedy

Push for solution after dozens die in asylum tragedy

Updated 21 February 2013, 15:11 AEDT

The Government urges the Coalition to rethink opposition to the Malaysian solution after the reported deaths of 98 asylum seekers off Sri Lanka.

Australia's government urges the opposition to rethink its asylum policy after 98 asylum seekers die off Sri Lanka.

Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor has urged the Coalition to rethink its opposition to the Malaysian solution, after the reported deaths of 98 asylum seekers who were trying to make their way to Indonesia or Australia.

Sri Lankan police say Burmese asylum seekers rescued from a sinking ship told them 98 people had died of starvation and dehydration during a two-month ordeal after their ship's engine stopped working.

The survivors told police the bodies had been thrown overboard.

Police said 32 survivors - 31 adult men and a boy - were eventually rescued from the damaged vessel which was sinking about 250 kilometres off the south-east coast of Sri Lanka.

Mr O'Connor says he is seeking a briefing on what happened, adding that it underscores the need to put in place the full recommendations from the expert panel on asylum seekers.

"We need the breadth of initiatives that's going to stop this type of tragedy happening again," Mr O'Connor told Fairfax radio.

"I think it's really now time for... the Opposition to have a rethink about their opposition to some of those recommendations because I just think we've got to take the politics out of this [and] focus on what we can do to prevent the people dying at sea in this manner."

The expert panel recommended the Government push ahead with its plan for an asylum seeker deal with Malaysia, describing such cooperation as "vitally important", although it said there needed to be greater protections built in to the agreement.


The Coalition has maintained its opposition to the deal, citing human rights concerns with the way asylum seekers are treated in Malaysia.

"The problem Brendan O'Connor has with the Malaysian people swap is the report of the Houston panel itself," Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison told ABC News Online.

"They red-lighted the proposal on the basis that the protections were insufficient and the Government has not lifted a finger to change that agreement one word, one sentence since the report was handed down.

"So before Brendan O'Connor starts going around issuing blame certificates, he needs to look to the inaction in his own quarter where they have failed to move one inch."

Yesterday, Australian authorities were forced to rescue a group of asylum seekers from the water after their boat capsized on the way to Christmas Island.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare says the boat, carrying 88 asylum seekers and three crew members, had sent out a distress signal earlier in the week.

A merchant ship responded to the call for help on Tuesday night until HMAS Parramatta arrived on the scene.

Navy officers monitored the boat as it continued to track towards Christmas Island, but yesterday decided to transfer the asylum seekers off the boat because of concerns about its seaworthiness.

"Towards the completion of the transfer effort, the vessel capsized. A number of people entered the water," Mr Clare's statement says.

"HMAS Parramatta is confident all people were recovered from the water with some minor injuries reported."

One of the expert panel members, Paris Aristotle, last year warned that Australia could expect tens of thousands of asylum seekers to attempt the dangerous boat journey in 2013 unless all the recommendations were put in place.

Former defence force chief Angus Houston said it was "inevitable" there would be further loss of life at sea because the boats often leak and are over-crowded.

According to a Sri Lankan police spokesman, the survivors from this week's boat tragedy identified themselves as Muslims from a border village between Burma and Bangladesh.

"They said they had carried food and water for only one month and they had been in the sea for two months after the ship engine stalled," police spokesman Prishantha Jayakody said.

"Their captain and 97 others have died due to dehydration and starvation. They also said they had thrown the dead bodies into the sea."

He said the survivors said they were aiming to seek asylum in Indonesia and Australia.