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Australia's Asylum Policies Under Scrutiny Following Boat Tragedy

The wreck of a boat laden with refugees off Christmas Island has refueled advocacy groups fight to change Australia's immigration policy.
A tragic boat crash off Australia's Christmas Island that claimed the lives of some 30 asylum seekers has raised alarms by critics of the country's immigration policies and led to calls for more to be done to stop the regional trade of human smuggling.

The tragedy unfolded when a wooden boat carrying about 100 Iranians, Iraqis, and Kurds repeatedly slammed against a reef offshore the isolated Indian Ocean island. Thirty bodies have been found among the surf and wreckage, but investigators warn that official numbers may never be determined.

On December 18, Australian authorities officially callled off the search for survivors, saying " "there is no longer any reasonable prospect that anyone in the sea could still be alive." A day prior, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, said at a press conference that the focus now was to comfort survivors and to ascertain what led to the tragedy.

Gillard said the whole nation is "shocked by what we have seen" and condemned the regional trade of smuggling refugees as "an evil trade."

While human rights groups have praised the governments quick response to the tragedy, they stress that authorities must take a more humane approach toward the rising number of asylum seekers.

Set Up For Tragedy

The location of Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the middle of the Indian Ocean, more than 2,500 kilometers from Western Australia but only a few hundred kilometers south of Jakarta, has made it a prime destination for Afghanis, Iraqis, Iranians, and Sri Lankans fleeing violence in their home countries.

The number of asylum seekers heading for Australia has risen since 2007, when the country's Labor Party government relaxed its refugee laws, however the number of asylum-seekers granted refugee status has dropped in the past decade -- from about 21,000 to 13,500 annually.

Despite the perils, the route by sea to Christmas Island and other areas of Australia via Malaysia, Indonesia, or Thailand, is well-trafficked. In 2010 alone, 120 boats carrying 6,000 people landed on Australian territory, the largest number in 20 years.

Remote detention centers -- like the one on Christmas Island built to hold thousands of immigrants -- absorb the influx, housing asylum seekers and refugees until their asylum application is reviewed by authorities.

Advocacy groups argue that the decreasing rate of asylum approvals has led to overcrowding, as well as protests and hunger strikes at detention centers. According to the website of the Christmas Island facility, around 68 percent of detainees had been detained from three to 12 months. Australian government websites say the asylum process normally takes around 90 days.

Sophie Peer, spokesperson for the Refuge Council of Australia, estimates that currently the Christmas Island facility houses 2,800 asylum seekers, though it's maximum capacity is 2,500. Peer says there have been reports of detainees being housed in tents.

"We still completely disagree with remote detention like Christmas Island, and in fact disagree with long-term, indefinite detention." Peer argues. "Australia's system of locking up people who have committed no crime under our law, or under international law, and keeping them for, sometimes, in the past its been years, but recently at least 12 months, whilst their claims are being heard is just completely unacceptable and not international norm."

In a 2009 report, the Australian Human Rights Commission strongly condemned the Christmas Island detention center, saying "it feels and looks like a prison" and noting its mandatory detention of children and lack of adequate health and mental health services for detainees.

"Beyond whatever the conditions might be in the center," Peer adds, "the simple fact of its remoteness - it's just so limiting to get there. It takes a long time and a lot of money to get from the mainland to Christmas Island." Peer says she worries about the access detainees on Christmas Island have to community, cultural, and relgious groups.

No Othe Choice

Forty-two people survived the boat crash. A dozen survivors are receiving medical and psychological treatment at hospitals in Western Australia, while the rest are being housed at the detention center on the island. Among the survivors are three Indonesians suspected of being people smugglers, who are being interviewed by the police.

That some asylum seekers pay people in Indonesia and Malaysia up to $10,000 to smuggle them across international borders is neither rare or new. Peer says people fleeing their countries because of war or persecution really "have no choice but to get on that boat."

"We're seeing so many unsafe boats taking that journey and people putting their lives at risk," Peers explains. "Obviously people smuggling rackets making money from the situation, and we seen nowhere near enough regional cooperation."

Peer says her group is petitioning the Australian government to discuss the problem of human smuggling with leaders in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. She stresses that only a "regional solution" can ensure that refugees finally reach the asylum they seek.