THE federal government is defending its asylum-seeker policy while insisting the sinking of a ship in Indonesian waters shouldn’t be used as a political football.
Rescuers have found 34 survivors from the boat which sank in waters off East Java while en route to Australia on Saturday.
It is thought the boat was carrying between 215 and 250 asylum seekers, mostly from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.
The search for survivors continues, with Australian police, navy and customs helping at the request of Indonesian authorities.
Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said the situation was looking increasingly grim with weather worsening in the area.
He said it would be inappropriate to make political comments while the search continued.
But he believed Australians wanted the government and opposition to work together to get offshore processing of asylum seekers restarted.
“That’s what the people of Australia would expect of us, to sit down and work through it maturely and sensibly,” he told reporters in Darwin.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the government had been concerned such loss of life was inevitable under the current asylum seeker policy impasse.
The government wants the opposition to support legislation amending the Migration Act to allow asylum seekers arriving by boat to be sent to Malaysia for processing.
But the coalition says it would only support such amendments if the country asylum seekers were sent to was a signatory to the UN refugee convention.
That would rule out Malaysia but allow the coalition’s preferred option of reopening the Nauru processing centre.
“We believe that in order to have a proper deterrent to stop people risking their lives at sea then you need to have a properly constructed regional offshore processing arrangement,” Mr Bowen told Sky News on Monday.
“We are seeing … people smugglers having no regard for human life whatsoever and putting more people onto dangerous boats.
“That underlines why we have worked so hard to get offshore processing up.”
He would not be criticising Liberal Party policy or individuals until the search in Indonesia was complete.
However, Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop urged Prime Minister Julia Gillard to embrace the coalition’s policies.
These include reopening the Nauru centre, issuing temporary protection visas and turning boats back to Indonesia where possible.
“It is time for the government to acknowledge that its abandonment of offshore processing and now having an onshore processing policy means that there are pull factors at play,” she told Sky News.
“I do not understand why the prime minister will not reinstate the policies that have been proven to work.”
The Australian Greens are standing by their support for onshore processing despite this latest tragedy.
Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said Australia had a responsibility to set an example of how to treat asylum seekers with dignity and respect.
“We can’t continue to allow the humanitarian needs of asylum seekers to get caught up in the politics of border protection and national security,” she told reporters in Adelaide.
“You don’t deter people who are fleeing for their lives from reaching safety by locking them up, incarcerating them and driving them mad.”