Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Tuesday renewed calls for a refugee swap with Malaysia to deter boatpeople after two asylum-seekers drowned in the latest tragedy at sea.
Canberra clinched a deal with Malaysia in 2011 to transfer 800 boatpeople to the Southeast Asian country to deter refugees from making the risky journey by removing the incentive of being resettled in Australia.
But the plan has never been implemented and has been shot down in the Australian parliament by the conservative opposition, led by Tony Abbott, which objects to the fact Malaysia has not signed the UN refugee convention.
“On the Malaysia arrangement, I would implement that tomorrow if Tony Abbott got out of the way,” Gillard told ABC television, hours after a boy aged four or five and a woman in her 30s died in the capsize.
Rising numbers of boatpeople have been arriving in Australian waters in recent weeks after the end of the monsoon season, with many travelling in cramped and dangerous wooden fishing vessels from Indonesia.
Gillard said Monday’s incident was “incredibly distressing”.
“I think many Australians will have been moved to see that loss of life, particularly the loss of life of a child,” she said.
“This just reinforces the message how incredibly dangerous it is for people to get on these boats, to put their lives in the hands of the people-smuggler and too often, too tragically, we see lives lost in those circumstances.”
Hundreds of people have died making the sea crossing to Australia in recent years and Gillard said she had taken “the best advice possible” on the issue to try to break the people-smuggling trade.
But she said she had been stopped from implementing all the measures recommended by a distinguished panel of experts, led by former defence force chief Angus Houston, by “the belligerence and negativity of the opposition”.
“I think that is to be regretted,” she said.
Abbott rejected the call, telling reporters that when Gillard referred to the Malaysia deal, she was looking for “an excuse to do nothing”.
“Malaysia involves just 800 people and just at the moment we’re getting 800 people a week,” he said.
The Malaysia plan was aimed at stopping the flow of hundreds of people, mostly from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, coming by boat from Asian hubs each year in the hope of being resettled in Australia.
Under the proposal, Australia agreed to accept 4,000 people from Malaysia who had already been registered as refugees in exchange for sending 800 boatpeople to the South East Asian nation.
After the plan collapsed, Canberra reopened refugee processing centres on the Pacific nation of Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
Australia last year dealt with a record 17,202 asylum-seekers arriving by sea and has already seen 3,028 in the first three months of this year.