“We are at real risk… of seeing more boats”

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has warned that the failure to secure a refugee swap deal with Malaysia risked more asylum-seekers gambling with their lives on unauthorised boat journeys.

Gillard was forced to abandon her controversial plan to send up to 800 boatpeople to the Southeast Asian country in exchange for 4,000 of its refugees on Thursday after it was rejected by opposition lawmakers.

The arrangement was aimed at stopping the flow of hundreds of people, mostly from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, coming by boat from Asian hubs each year in the hope of being resettled in Australia.

“We are at real risk… of seeing more boats,” Gillard told ABC radio as she laid the blame squarely on opposition leader Tony Abbott, whose Liberal/National coalition refused to support the bill allowing the swap.

“My view is that we should be implementing the arrangement with Malaysia… it would be the greatest deterrence to stop people risking their lives at sea and getting on leaky boats,” she said.

Gillard added that more than 400 people had died on Australia-bound boats in recent years.

Canberra has previously processed asylum-seekers in Papua New Guinea and the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru, but a recent High Court ruling blocking the Malaysia deal cast legal doubts over all offshore arrangements.

The move forced Gillard’s coalition government to prepare new legislation to allow offshore processing, but the prime minister failed to gain enough support to change the Migration Act.

Rights group Amnesty International welcomed the policy change but said Australia had reluctantly been pushed into acting like every other Western democracy.

“By default, the government is now in a position to look seriously at how we process people onshore and tackle head-on the extended periods that vulnerable people spend in detention,” Amnesty spokesman Graham Thom said.

Those seeking asylum in Australia are relatively small in number — with just 2,572 arriving on 42 boats so far in 2011.

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