Bill to turn asylum seekers away fails in Australian Senate

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Australian senators yesterday rejected laws that would have enabled the country to turn away asylum seekers to discourage them from attempting long and dangerous ocean journeys in rickety boats.

The legislation had scraped through the House of Representatives late on 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 the Senate rejected it by 39 votes to 29 after sometimes tearful arguments.

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 on Wednesday.

The legislation would have enabled the government to deport asylum seekers who arrive by boat to another country in Southeast Asia or the Pacific.

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

Prime minister Julia Gillard had urged senators to pass the law before Parliament takes a six-week break.

After the Senate vote, she accused opposition leader Tony Abbott of making no effort to compromise on legislation she said could save lives.

“Mr Abbott did not move one millimetre at any stage of this ... while people are drowning at sea,” she told reporters. Mr Abbott, however, blamed Mrs Gillard, accusing her of displaying “pride and stubbornness”.

Both Mrs Gillard’s centre-left Labour 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 UN-recognised refugees from Kuala Lumpur.

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