Refugee debate turns toxic after boat tragedy

Australia's brief political truce over last week's shipwreck off Christmas Island was replaced by an increasingly bitter argument about the future direction of the country's refugee policy yesterday, as first-hand accounts of the tragedy began to emerge.

As many as 48 asylum-seekers are now thought to have died in the disaster. With 30 people now confirmed dead, the search for more bodies has been called off on the advice of police divers, who have scoured underground caves near the rugged Indian Ocean territory.

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said 18 people were still missing, presumed dead, and their bodies would probably never be found, "so that is obviously very, very grim news".

One woman who survived the disaster told the West Australian newspaper in Perth that a few hours before the boat ran into the rocks, the crew cut the boat's engine and told those on board that Australia's navy would come to their aid. "The crew told everyone to scream, but no one heard their cries until dawn broke, hours later," said Rana Mohamad, who fled Iraq with her family about a month ago.

The asylum-seekers began panicking when the waves started to gain strength and there was still no sign of the navy, she said. Ms Mohamad was holding the hands of her husband and young son when the boat broke apart. All three were wearing life jackets, but she does not know whether they survived.

As the 42 survivors continued the bleak task of identifying the dead, some of Ms Gillard's Labor MPs called for a return of the hardline policies which – under the former prime minister John Howard – stopped virtually all asylum-seeker boats from making the hazardous journey from Indonesia. One unnamed MP told The Australian: "My view is we should send a clear signal. No amount of kind approach seems to be dissuading people from risking not only their lives, but their children."

However, with the country still stunned by scenes of the fishing boat smashing to pieces against Christmas Island's jagged rocks, other politicians are demanding a more humane approach. A Labor adviser, Cameron Milner, urged Ms Gillard to increase Australia's refugee intake by tenfold or more, "to provide for the men, women and children who can't, and those who shouldn't have to, become human cargo".

The cynicism of both sides of politics was underlined by US cables released last week by WikiLeaks, which quoted a key strategist from the conservative Liberal Party as describing the asylum-seeker topic as "fantastic" for the opposition. "The more boats that come the better," he reportedly told US diplomats. Labor politicians, meanwhile, regarded the issue as "politically dangerous", according to the cables.

Refugees have been a toxic political subject in Australia since 2001, when Mr Howard won an election after refusing to allow a Norwegian tanker, the Tampa, to dock at Christmas Island with a cargo of shipwrecked Afghans and Iraqis. He then introduced a harsh regime requiring all asylum-seekers to be processed on remote Pacific Ocean islands, and providing only temporary visas for those granted refugee status.

But it seems his party is equally capable of generosity towards asylum-seekers depending on the circumstances. Andrew Wilkie, one of four independent MPs propping up Ms Gillard's minority government, claimed yesterday that the current Liberal leader, Tony Abbott, offered to double Australia's refugee intake – currently 13,750 people a year – in exchange for Mr Wilkie's support.

The offer was made during the horse-trading that followed last August's inconclusive election, Mr Wilkie said. Mr Abbott denied it, saying he discussed with Mr Wilkie only the possibility of "a modest increase in our refugee intake for people who came in through proper channels, not by boat".