Australia Says 120 Refugees May Have Drowned Off Indonesia

More than 120 asylum seekers may have drowned off Indonesia, according to the Australian government, which is reopening offshore detention centers in an attempt to deter refugees from attempting the boat journey.

“There were up to 150 people that were aboard this vessel,” which is believed to have sunk, Home Minister Jason Clare told reporters in Sydney today. “There is a massive search and rescue effort going on right now just off the coast of Indonesia.”

The HMAS Maitland has recovered 16 people, the Australian Maritime Saftey Authority said in a statement on its website. Six survivors were recovered by a merchant vessel earlier today.

Almost 1,000 asylum seekers, often from war-torn Middle Eastern and South Asian nations, are known to have drowned in the waters between Indonesia and Australia since 2001. While the number of people seeking asylum in Australia is dwarfed by applications to the U.S., the issue has dogged Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s government, which is clawing back from near record-low approval ratings before elections due next year.

The fatalities, which have ramped up in the past three years, this month spurred Gillard to reverse her previous stance by passing legislation to send asylum seekers arriving by boat to camps on the South Pacific island of Nauru and Papua New Guinea for processing.

Nauru Deal

Gillard, in the Cook Islands for the Pacific Islands Forum, signed a memorandum of understanding with Nauru to establish a processing center, she said in an e-mailed statement today.

The arrangement “sends a clear message that countries in this region are working together towards a lasting regional response in taking action necessary to undermine people smuggling networks, stop those dangerous boat journeys and prevent the loss of life at sea,” she said.

The shift in policy was criticized by human rights campaigners who said the new laws were arbitrary and discriminatory. About 604 people lost their lives since October 2009, according to an independent report presented to the government this month.

The minority Labor government has also come under attack from the Liberal-National opposition as increasing numbers of refugees pay Indonesian smugglers to ferry them in overcrowded boats to Australia.

Pacific Solution

Processing refugees in Papua New Guinea and Nauru marks a return to former Prime Minister John Howard’s so-called Pacific Solution that was scrapped after Labor won office in 2007.

While asylum seekers have been arriving by boat in Australia since the Vietnam War in the 1970s, the issue became more politicized about a decade ago when Howard’s Liberal- National government detained refugees, including children, in offshore processing camps or in detention centers in remote areas.

Some asylum seekers responded to their detention with riots, suicides and by sewing their lips together to protest, with a United Nations report released in 2002 saying their treatment was “inhumane and degrading.”

In August 2001, Howard refused to allow 430 asylum seekers on the MV Tampa, a Norwegian freighter, to enter Australian waters and ordered soldiers to board the ship. His bid to deter people smugglers included orders to the Navy to “turn back the boats,” a phrase current Liberal-National leader Tony Abbott repeats today as opposition policy.

Abbott has blamed Labor’s closing of the camps for a rise in the number of refugee boats arriving and fatalities.

The nation received 15,441 asylum applications last year, compared with 60,587 in the U.S. and 43,759 for Sweden, according to the Refugee Council of Australia. While the political debate is focused on so-called boat people, 6,316 people seeking asylum in 2010-11 arrived in Australia by air, compared with 5,175 by boat, the council says.

Under laws passed Aug. 17, Australia will increase its annual refugee intake to 20,000 from about 13,700 now. Gillard intends to start processing of refugees at Nauru and Papua New Guinea next month.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jason Scott in Canberra at jscott14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net

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