SYDNEY // The death of 28 people seeking asylum in Australia has renewed pressure on the government to soften its asylum policy and sparked fresh calls for a regional asylum processing centre.
The issue of how to handle boatpeople arrivals, while small in number compared with those crossing the Mediterranean to Europe, is a "hot button" political issues in Australia and was a major issue at August elections which saw Prime Minister Julia Gillard narrowly elected to lead a minority government.
Gillard has proposed a regional asylum processing centre, possibly in East Timor, to curb boatpeople arrivals. More than 130 boats arrived in 2010.
"Unless the government changes its policies and adopts a welcome refugee policy, there will be more tragedies," said Australia's Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul.
The death toll from Wednesday's tragedy, in which a boat possibly carrying 100 refugees was smashed by strong waves onto sharp rocks on Australia's Christmas Island, could rise to more than 50, say rescue officials, with only 44 people rescued.
Police said the vessel appeared to be Indonesian, with most of the passengers Iraqis.
"People who have survived say there were between 70 and 100. But we really don't know and we probably never will," said Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.
Australia's worst boatpeople tragedy was in 2001 when 353 asylum seekers drowned when their Indonesian timber boat sank in the Indian Ocean.
Australia intercepts boatpeople in the Indian Ocean, detaining them on its remote Christmas Island for processing, which prevents asylum seekers gaining greater legal rights by landing on the Australian mainland.
Bowen, just returned from talks with the United Nations and Malaysia over a possible East Timor processing centre, said the latest tragedy would not change border security policy.
"We need to break the people-smuggling business model, absolutely we do. To do so we need international cooperation and that's what we're working very hard on to do," he said.
Australia's Greens party, a key member of Gillard's minority government, has renewed calls a "more humane" approach to boatpeople in Australia and a regional asylum processing centre.
Gillard has cut short her Christmas holidays to return to Canberra to deal with the asylum seeker tragedy.
"When a Prime Minister returns early from holidays you can be sure that the primary reason is damage control....Her task is purely and simply to try and ensure that yesterday's deaths do not revive the issue of boatpeople in a way that seriously damages the standing of her government," said www.crickey.com.au political commentator Richard Farmer.