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Australian senators deadlocked on asylum seekers

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Senators were locked in an emotional debate Thursday over whether Australia should turn away asylum seekers to discourage them from attempting long and dangerous ocean journeys in rickety boats.

The legislation scraped through the House of Representatives late Wednesday by 74 votes to 72 after six hours of passionate debate, amplified by two recent deadly accidents involving boats filled with Australia-bound migrants. But senators were poised to reject it because some members of the ruling coalition were joining forces with the opposition.

More than 90 people are believed to have died in a capsizing last week midway between the Australian territory of Christmas Island and Indonesia, and another four are believed to have died in a capsizing Wednesday.

Parliament has been debating legislation that would enable the government to deport asylum seekers who arrive by boat to another country in Southeast Asia or the Pacific.

Boat arrivals are currently sent to Christmas Island to have their asylum claims assessed although many asylum seekers have been transferred to the Australian mainland in recent month because of overcrowding at the island detention facilities.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard urged senators to pass the law on Thursday before Parliament adjourns for six weeks.

“We cannot just sit in this Parliament and watch boats capsize and people drown and do nothing,” she said.

Both Gillard’s center-left Labor Party and the conservative opposition coalition agree that sending asylum seekers to a third country to have their refugee claims assessed is the best option for putting people smugglers out of business and to curb the flow of boats.

But they differ on where the asylum seekers should be sent. The government wants to send them to Malaysia as part of a swap deal in which Australia would resettle U.N.-recognized refugees from Kuala Lumpur.

The opposition rejects Malaysia and any other country that has not signed the U.N. Convention on Refugees, for fear that the asylum seekers’ rights will not be respected. The coalition prefers the tiny Pacific atoll of Nauru, where a previous conservative Australian government had paid for and maintained an immigration detention center.

The minor Greens party, which supports Gillard’s minority government, believes Australia should accept all boat arrivals. The party plans to join the opposition in rejecting the legislation in the Senate.

Labor has 31 senators in the 76-seat chamber, the opposition 34 and the Greens, nine. One of the two independent senators is in hospital and cannot vote.

The government had planned to implement the Malaysian deal without Parliament’s approval, but in August 2011 the High Court ruled that such a move would be illegal.

Foreign Minister Bob Carr told the Senate the number of boat arrivals slowed from May last year, when the Malaysian deal was announced, but then tripled after the government gave up trying to get enabling legislation through Parliament in October last year.

The compromise bill before the Senate drafted by independent lawmaker Rob Oakeshott would enable the government to send asylum seekers to a range of countries including Malaysia and Nauru.

“We can break the business model of the people smugglers and we have a duty to do so,” Carr told the Senate. “The absence of a clear decision is seen as an open door to Australia.”

The boat that capsized Wednesday sank 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of Australia’s Christmas Island and 185 kilometers (115 miles) south of the main Indonesian island of Java. Rescue authorities praised three merchant ships that came to the rescue for preventing a worse tragedy.

Last Thursday, 110 people were rescued when a boat carrying more than 200 mostly Afghan asylum seekers capsized just 24 kilometers (15 miles) from the latest tragedy. Only 17 bodies were recovered.

The survivors’ refugee applications were being assessed at Christmas Island, where Australia runs an immigration detention center for boat arrivals.

Published Date: Wednesday, June 27th, 2012 | 08:50 PM

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