IN the days since the bodies of 17 asylum seekers were recovered from the sea off Christmas Island in the wake of the latest boat disaster, leading Australian Catholic human rights organisations have called for a bipartisan approach to solving the problem.
The drowned asylum seekers were aboard a boat, believed to be carrying about 200 Sri Lankans, which sank in rough seas about 200km north of Christmas Island on June 21. Of these only 110 survived.
Spokesmen from the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office (ACMRO), Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Australia and the Edmund Rice Centre (ERC) also pointed out this latest tragedy, and others, reflected the desperation driving asylum seekers from their homelands.
ACMRO director Scalabrinian Father Maurizio Pettenà said: “There is a great and urgent need to tackle the phenomenon of asylum seekers at its source.
“Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka all feature in the top 20 countries at risk of serious human rights violations and mass killings.
“These people are desperate.
“We cannot expect asylum seekers will always behave rationally.
“They know the boat journey is dangerous and they know they’re likely to end up in detention, but in their situation, it is often seen as a necessary step in order to secure their long-term future.”
JRS Australia director Jesuit Father Aloysious Mowe said “tens of thousands of refugees in Malaysia wait for years to be resettled in third countries”.
“They have few protections in that country during their wait,” he said.
“Is it any wonder that some take the decision to get on boats headed for Indonesia and then Australia?”
Fr Pettenà urged the Federal Govern-ment to explore alternative measures which would allow a number of people who were most at risk to depart in an orderly fashion directly from countries of conflict and persecution and then be processed in Australia.
“Australia should explore suitable arrangements with countries like Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka to allow people through an orderly process to escape at the source and take away the need for many to put themselves at the mercy of smugglers and dangerous boat journeys,” he said.
He said ACMRO was also greatly encouraged by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen’s call to increase Australia’s humanitarian intake.
ERC director Phil Glendenning said the latest disaster must not be used to provide political parties with an excuse to “apportion blame”.
“What is required is an end to the deadlock that is paralysing our national capacity to sensibly and humanely resolve the asylum policy impasse,” he said.
“Such a bipartisan spirit could enable the parliamentarians of Australia to do what the parliamentarians of Australia did in the post-Vietnam War period – to rise above narrow politics to act in the national interest – which is the interest of saving lives.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr was reported in the media as having a similar opinion, saying “it was time for his colleagues to reach out across the parliament and craft a solution to the impasse to prevent further tragedies”.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said what was needed was “not bipartisanship but effective policies”.
“What’s needed here is not compromise for compromise’s sake, but policies that work,” he said.
However, media outlets reported several Opposition MPs last week had called for a bipartisan approach.
Independent MP Rob Oakeshott said in a media interview the Federal Parliament should continue sitting until it can break the political impasse over border protection policies.
He has introduced a private member’s bill designed to end the political stalemate and give the Government the option of restoring offshore processing.
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