The Australian Senate on Thursday rejected a bill that would have allowed deportation of hundreds of asylum-seekers to another country in Southeast Asia or the Pacific while their cases were being considered by the authorities.
The bill tabled in the parliament by the ruling Labor party of Prime Minister Julia Gillard was rejected in a 39 to 29 vote in the Senate. Incidentally, Australia's lower house of parliament, the House of Representatives, had approved the measure in a tight 74 to 72 vote late Wednesday.
The bill, if approved by the Senate, would have allowed the Australian government to reopen a detention center on the Pacific island state of Nauru and transfer hundreds of asylum seekers to Malaysia for processing. The deportations are intended to act as a deterrent for hundreds of asylum seekers who make long, dangerous boat journeys to Australia every year.
Prime Minister Gillard had earlier attempted to address the issue by reaching a refugee swap deal with Malaysia that would have allowed Australia to send 800 asylum-seekers to that country in exchange for accepting 4,000 confirmed refugees from the Asian country over the next four years.
Gillard, however, was forced to drop the proposal after the country's High Court ruled that her plans to send asylum seekers to camps set up in other countries were unlawful, stating that the arrangement does not provide any guarantees that the rights of the asylum-seekers sent to those countries would be protected.
The opposition Liberal Party objects to deporting asylum seekers to Malaysia, where their cases would be processed before deciding if they could move on to Australia, as the South east Asian nation is not a signatory of the UN convention to protect refugees. They voted against the bill as it included both the Nauru and Malaysia options.
The opposition has been calling for a return to the controversial policy of former prime minster John Howard, which allowed sending people arriving on Australian shores illegally by boats to a detention center on Nauru. The policy was scrapped when the Labor Party came to power.
The opposition could not have defeated the measure on their own without the support of the Greens party, a member of the ruling coalition. The Greens are opposed to the whole idea of "offshore processing" of asylum seekers, and believe that Australia should accept all boat arrivals. Nevertheless, Thursday's Senate vote leaves the issue unresolved.
The debate on detention and treatment of asylum seekers, along with their proposed deportation to another country for processing, gained momentum in Australia after more than 150 asylum seekers were killed in two separative boat accidents in less than a week.
Some 130 people were rescued from sea after a boat carrying some 200 asylum-seekers bound for Australia capsized north of Christmas Island on Wednesday. Another boat had capsized in the same area last week, killing at least 90 people. That boat was believed to have been carrying about 200 people, of which 110 were rescued.
Both accidents occurred off Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean which is actually closer to Indonesia than Australia. Canberra has an immigration detention center on the island where all asylum-seekers arriving by boat are taken. Currently, more than 2,500 people are waiting at the island's processing center for officials to rule on their cases.
Australia has become a coveted destination for desperate people from impoverished and war-torn countries seeking a new life. Many of them attempt to enter the country by making a perilous 230-mile voyage from Indonesia in rickety fishing boats, which are often operated by human-traffickers.
by RTT Staff Writer
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