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Hanson says 'pathetic' Australian PM to blame for boat deaths

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN
  • Former Australian MP Pauline Hanson calls for return to tough policies on asylum seekers
  • Brands Prime Minister Julia Gillard "pathetic" and "weak"
  • Numbers of boat-borne asylum seekers rose to record high in 2009-2009
  • At least 28 people died when their boat hit rocks off Christmas Island December 15

(CNN) -- Controversial former Australian politician Pauline Hanson says the government's weak policies on asylum seekers are to blame for the deaths of dozens of people off the coast of Christmas Island.

At least 28 asylum seekers were killed when their boat smashed against rocks off the coast of the isolated Australian territory, in the Indian Ocean 1,600 miles northwest of Perth.

Many pulled dead from the water were women children and it is feared more bodies will be found. Rescuers dragged 42 survivors from the choppy water as their wooden boat broke up around them.

"It's an absolute shame that there has been loss of the life especially the children or the babies -- they haven't got a choice," Hanson said, stressing the distinction between refugees and asylum seekers.

"A refugee is a person who flees a country. A person from Iran and Iraq is passing many other countries. They're choosing their destination. Yes, our country has a lot to offer to people, but I blame the Labor government for the number of boat people who are claiming asylum."

"We need a strong prime minister. I have no time for Julia Gillard. I think she is pathetic. I think she is weak," Hanson said.

Life of an asylum seeker
Asylum seekers shipwrecked
Asylum boat crashes into rocks

Pauline Hanson made international headlines in the late 1990s as a former fish-and-chip shop owner who was elected as a Member of Parliament, even after being disendorsed by the Liberal Party.

She was branded a racist in response to her views on immigration and Aboriginal benefits, but responded to a surge in popularity by setting up her own party, One Nation, with which she says he has had no connection since 2002.

The people on board the stricken vessel off Christmas Island were of Iran, Iraq and Kurdish origin. An inquest and criminal investigation will determine the nature of the asylum seekers' deaths, their passage of journey to Australia and the potential involvement of people smugglers.

"I believe it is vital that the truth, every fact, about this tragic incident is known to decision makers and to the general public," Prime Minister Gillard said during a press briefing in Sydney, calling the deaths "a terrible human tragedy."

Hanson said the money would be better spent addressing Australia's social problems, as would the dollars being allocated to process and support asylum seekers on their arrival in the country.

"In Australia, we have 44,000 homeless youth under the age of 25; we don't look after our own first. These people choose to come here. I feel sorry for the demise that they have in their own countries, but we are not reasonable for them. And now she's making a cost for a criminal investigation to look into this, an extra cost to the taxpayer," Hanson said.

In the financial year ending 2009-2010, 118 boats arrived on Australia's shores carrying more than 5,600 people, the highest number recorded in the previous 20 years. Just five years earlier, tough policies introduced by former Prime Minister John Howard were credited with cutting the number of arrivals to zero.

In 2001, he introduced the "Pacific Solution," which involved diverting asylum seekers to detention camps on remote Pacific islands.

The policy was abandoned by Howard's successor, Labor leader Kevin Rudd in 2007 after which the numbers of boat arrivals increased dramatically.

Both political parties scrambled to sell their tough measures on immigration to voters before the last leadership election, with the opposition Liberal party vowing to "stop the boats."

Since winning the Australian federal election in September, Rudd's successor Julia Gillard has adopted a tougher stance on asylum seekers, with plans to open more detention centers, including a proposed off-shore site on East Timor.

Khalid Koser, Associate Dean of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, says he is positive about Gillard's early policy moves, but says it's a mistake to think tougher policies will lead to a permanent drop in boat arrivals.

"It's clear that tough policies are a vote winner. I think what we need to do is to avoid a race to the bottom between the government and the opposition to see who can come up with the toughest policies because I don't think it'll actually work in the long-term.

Koser said restrictive policies have been shown to cut down arrivals in the short-term before "innovative" smugglers find a way to circumvent them.

And he says it is a mistake to assume that asylum seekers know where they are going, much less cherry-pick their destinations based on government policy.

"It's pretty crazy to think that some poor Afghan leaving a tribal area in Afghanistan or a refugee camp in Pakistan, or even Indonesia where he's been for three months is going to know about these things."

Detainees themselves have been trying to draw attention to their plight with protests over the last decade, including hunger strikes where participants have sewn their lips together. As recently as last month, 10 asylum seekers on Christmas Island did the same to protest the conditions in which they were being held.

Pauline Hanson said she had no problem if asylum seekers in Australian detention centers were unhappy with their situation. "That's their choice to do that. Australians are saying it's your choice to come here," she said.

"You can actually stitch your lips together, you can actually protest as much as you want to but you won't be out of those detention centers."

Hanson says she is considering a political comeback as an independent candidate, but as yet has no timetable for her return.

"I have got people pulling me up even today. They want to see me back in politics, because they see me as a person who doesn't beat around the bush," she said.

If in power, she said she would bring back Howard's policies of detention centers and temporary protection visas.

"We don't want to see children lose their lives and what's happened, but those people chose to come by boat; they knew what could possibly happen. We're all sorry to see that, but I blame Julia Gillard for that. She can stop it if she wants to. Howard stopped it. She can."