67 asylum-seekers drown trying to reach Australia by boat


A group of 67 asylum-seekers trying to reach Australia by boat are feared to have drowned at sea, the government said today, as it prepared to re-open detention centres on the remote Pacific island of Nauru and in Papua New Guinea.

In the latest in a spate of similar incidents, the boat is believed to have gone missing after leaving Indonesia in late June or early July. “There is no evidence that those people have arrived in Australia,” said the Home Affairs Minister, Jason Clare. “So we now have very grave fears for the safety of those people.”

Julia Gillard’s Labor government has cited increasing asylum-seeker drownings as the reason for its decision to reinstate the internationally reviled “Pacific Solution” – a policy it had condemned for the last decade. Under the policy, which Labor scrapped in 2008, would-be refugees were deported to Nauru or the Papua New Guinea island of Manus to be processed, and often spent years in detention.

The Australian parliament today began debating amended laws that will allow asylum-seekers to be deported. With the conservative opposition – which invented the Pacific Solution in 2001 – supporting the government, the legislation is certain to succeed.

Ms Gillard said she expected to see asylum-seekers processed on Nauru and Papua New Guinea within a month, with advance teams to be sent out there as early as this Friday to assess the facilities. Asylum-seekers would be housed in tents and other temporary structures until the centres were up and running again.

The revival of the Pacific Solution – recommended this week by an independent panel set up to break a political deadlock – has been widely condemned by refugee and human rights groups. Rick Towle, regional representative of the UN’s refugee agency, today said he was concerned at the prospect of asylum-seekers spending years in detention.

More than 600 “boat people” are believed to have drowned since late 2009 while attempting to reach Australia in leaky boats. More than 90 died in two separate incidents in June. The voyage across the Indian Ocean from Indonesia – the main transit-point for asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Asia – is perilous, particularly in the crowded, often unseaworthy boats used by “people-smugglers”.

Mr Clare said customs officials had cross-checked the names of the 67 people missing against those of the hundreds of asylum-seekers who had arrived in recent weeks, but had failed to locate them.