Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - The deaths of more than 350 illegal immigrants off Indonesia triggered a political row Tuesday in Australia -- their presumed destination -- with the conservative government coming under fire for its immigration policies.
The official opposition slammed the government for failing to reach an agreement on stopping the human traffic with Indonesia, a key transit point for West Asians seeking asylum in Australia.
But the country's refugee council slammed both major political parties, accusing them of exploiting the fear and desperation of would-be refugees for political ends.
An overcrowded vessel sunk off the main Indonesian island of Java last Friday, with most of the 421 illegal immigrants from Iraq, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries believed lost at sea.
According to the Swiss-based International Organization for Migration, only 65 people are known to have survived the sinking, which occurred shortly after the Indonesian-registered ship's captain announced it was taking on water.
Some two-thirds of the survivors had been rescued by fishing vessels, while the remainder had earlier disembarked on a small island fearing the condition of the overloaded ship. IOM staff in Java are looking after the survivors.
The Australian government reacted to the news Tuesday by saying the tragedy emphasized the need to stop the trafficking of human beings at their point of origin.
Australia has in recent months sought to clamp down on illegal smuggling operations, preventing thousands of would-be refugees from landing on its territory to apply for asylum.
"It's most undesirable for people to be encouraged to come on boats to Australia and this [tragedy] demonstrates what I've been saying all along," said Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock.
"It is extremely hazardous, it is life-taking and it ought not to be encouraged or accommodated."
The drownings quickly became an issue in Australia's election campaign, with opposition Labor leader Kim Beazley linking the incident to government policy aimed at deterring illegal immigrants.
The only way to stop the flow of migrants heading for Australia, apart from "putting in place a decent coast guard" - a Labor election proposal - was to reach an agreement with Indonesia to stop the flow on that side, he told a Melbourne radio station.
Beazley said his party was best placed to reach such an agreement with Jakarta.
But Prime Minister John Howard reacted angrily to comments, accusing Beazley of despicable campaigning.
"It is a desperately despicable thing for the leader of the opposition to try and score a political point against me in relation to the sinking of a vessel in Indonesian waters," he said in a radio interview in western Australia. "We had nothing to do with it."
Asylum-seekers escaping troubled states in the Middle East and western Asia have been heading westward for the European Union and eastward toward Australia, the journey facilitated by people-trafficking gangs.
After taking in some 1,500 asylum-seekers in a two-week period last August, Australia finally called a halt to the influx, refusing permission for a Norwegian freighter carrying over 400 people rescued from a sinking Indonesian ferry to offload them on its Indian Ocean possession of Christmas Island, south of Java.
With Australia, Norway and Indonesia refusing to take them in, an eight-day standoff ensued, until the mostly Afghan refugees were taken temporarily to New Zealand and the tiny Pacific island of Nauru for their asylum claims to be processed.
Defense Minister Peter Reith Tuesday echoed Howard's words, saying government tough policies on asylum had nothing to do with the weekend tragedy off the Indonesian coast.
The safety of vessels leaving Indonesia was a matter for that country's port and safety authorities, said Reith, who has overseen the use of armed forces in preventing ships carrying asylum-seekers from landing on Australian soil.
Meanwhile, another "boatpeople" situation remains unresolved. Around 200 Afghan asylum seekers have been moored off the coast of Christmas Island for the past three days while the government considers what to do with them.
Australia continues to scour the region for friendly nations willing to accommodate the migrants - at Australia's expense - while their applications are being assessed. At the weekend, 200 were flown from Christmas Island to Papua New Guinea, while Fiji Tuesday considered a request from Canberra to take some.
'Not enough money spent'
The Refugee Council of Australia said Tuesday the drowning off Indonesia was a "very substantial tragedy, underscoring the desperation of people in search of a safe, secure future."
The council's executive director, Margaret Piper, said by phone from New South Wales that it was unfair of the government to hold Indonesia responsible for the problem.
Indonesia, she said, was not a signatory to refugee conventions, had 1,3 million internally-displaced people, two major separatist movements and was troubled by extreme ethnic violence.
"Indonesia should be focusing on dealing with these issues, not bailing Australia out of a situation which it has the capacity of dealing with itself."
Australia and other aid donors should examine why people are so desperate to leave their areas of origin that they are prepared to take such huge risks, Piper said.
They should also recognize that they had not provided enough money for the "countries of first asylum" in the region - nations like Pakistan and Iran, immediate neighbors to the countries of origin of refugees.
Iran, she said, has 2.6 million refugees, but it receives less than $30 million from the international community to cope with them.
Piper said Australia's two major political parties were taking advantage of the issue of asylum-seekers, for political gain.
"I think the electorate is being polarized. There are those that have bought the line being fed by the political parties that we have a major threat. And there are those who are horrified and disgusted by what the government is doing."
According to the Refugee Council of Australia, the ratio of refugee population to the total population in Australia is 1 : 1,583. By comparison, the ratio in the U.S. is 1 : 572, in Britain it's 1 : 681 and in Canada it's 1 : 566. In Indonesia the ratio is 1 : 1,754 and in Japan, 1 : 33,395.