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PNG leader's asylum warning

Papua New Guinea's PM Peter O'Neill has fired into Australia's pre-election asylum debate accusing the Opposition of 'nonsense' comments and misrepresenting him.

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Australia's offshore detention centre network is in crisis, with more staff turning on a ''cruel and degrading'' system they say makes riots inevitable.

Their accusations came as Immigration Minister Tony Burke embarked on his own mission to investigate allegations of rape made by a former employee at the detention centre on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.

Rescuers carry the body of a victim killed after a boat carrying asylum seekers sank off Java island.

Rescuers carry the body of a victim killed after a boat carrying asylum seekers, believed to be on its way to Australia, capsized off the coast of Java on Wednesday. Photo: AP

Six days after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd dropped his bombshell announcement that no asylum seekers who arrived by boat would be settled in Australia, but would be processed in PNG, critics say his policy is in tatters.

The urgent need to find a solution to the boat issue was highlighted by news that dozens of asylum seekers were feared dead after a vessel heading to Australia capsized in Indonesian waters. Among the eight confirmed drowned were children aged one, seven and eight.

Former prime minister Malcolm Fraser called for a royal commission into the immigration department and its management of offshore processing centres.

Rescuers assist survivors arriving on fishing boat at the wharf of Cidaun, West Java. Click for more photos

Sunken asylum seeker boat off West Java

Rescuers assist survivors arriving on fishing boat at the wharf of Cidaun, West Java. Photo: AFP

  • Rescuers assist survivors arriving on fishing boat at the wharf of Cidaun, West Java.
  • Warning: This photo gallery contain graphic content
  • Rescuers assist a survivor on arrival at the wharf of Cidaun, West Java.
  • A survivor (C) is given assistance as a search and rescue operation continues in Cidaun, West Java.
  • Rescuers carry the body of a victim killed after a boat carrying asylum seekers sank off Java island, West Java, Indonesia.
  • A police officer carries an unconscious child who was on the boat that capsized late on Tuesday after hitting a reef off the coast of Sukapura, Indonesia.
  • Suspected asylum seekers, who were on a boat that capsized.after hitting a reef off the coast of Sukapura, Indonesia.
  • The covered body of a suspected asylum seeker, who was on the boat that capsized after hitting a reef off the coast of Sukapura, West Java.
  • A rescuer carries a child after a boat carrying asylum seekers sank off Java island, in Cianjur, West Java.
  • Rescuers carry the body of a victim killed after a boat carrying asylum seekers sank off Java island, in Cianjur, West Java.
  • Members of an Indonesian search and rescue team help a survivor (2nd R) in Cidaun, West Java.
  • Survivors rest in a village center in Cidaun, West Java.
  • A woman, who is a suspected asylum seeker, cries after finding out about the death of her husband, at Jayanti beach clinic, West Java. The woman and her husband were travelling on a boat that capsized after hitting a reef off the coast of Sukapura.

Mr Fraser branded the camps on Manus Island and Nauru ''Australian gulags'', with conditions as bad as at the worst forced-labour camps of the Soviet Union. His comments came as an inquest in Perth heard criticism of searchers over the loss at sea of more than 100 asylum seekers last year.

But there were no signs on Wednesday of the two major parties coming together to resolve the asylum seeker issue, with Mr Rudd again accusing Opposition Leader Tony Abbott of imperilling the national interest by ''muddying the message to people smugglers'' on the new plan to process and resettle all new arrivals on PNG.

''Partisan politics aimed to, frankly, derail the regional resettlement agreement is just an appalling approach to the responsibilities of the highest office of this land, and frankly causes many people to question whether he is in fact fit to hold that office,'' Mr Rudd said.

An Indonesian policeman carries an exhausted young boy following more rescues from the sunken asylum seeker boat off West Java.

An Indonesian policeman carries an exhausted young boy following more rescues from the sunken asylum seeker boat off West Java. Photo: AFP

Mr Abbott replied by accusing Mr Rudd of ''buck-passing''. ''You're the prime minister, Mr Rudd. It's your problem and you've got to fix it.''

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the Coalition had grave doubts about the ''operability'' of Labor's PNG deal, but also acknowledged it would form part of its policy response to the boat problem if elected.

Whistleblowers who worked for the Salvation Army at the Nauru camp said on Wednesday they could no longer remain silent.

Suspected asylum seekers, who were on a boat that capsized late on Tuesday after hitting a reef off the coast of Sukapura, arrive at Jayanti beach, Sindang Barang district of Cianjur, Indonesia West Java.

Asylum seekers are helped to shore. Photo: Reuters

On Wednesday 32 current and former Salvation Army staff issued a joint letter claiming the weekend riot at the Nauru camp, ''although shocking, was … inevitable'' because of the conditions detainees face. Spokesman Mark Isaacs said the group spoke out despite facing lawsuits and court action.

Mr Isaacs, who set up the recreation and lifestyle programs on Nauru and worked there between October and June, said staff had seen the men detained on Nauru buckle under the pressure of indefinite detention. ''These really strong men, who've been through so much, just get degraded and downtrodden by this stalling and this bureaucracy,'' he said.

Mr Burke said: ''I want people who are being processed to be dealt with professionally and with dignity. I do not accept that violence and vandalism of the scale we saw at Nauru was an inevitable consequence of the conditions there''.

The staff on Nauru said the conditions on Nauru, and the indefinite nature of the detention, had caused people to break down. ''The mental health impact of detention in this harsh physical and policy environment cannot be overstated … we have witnessed a man scrabbling in the dirt, suffering a psychotic breakdown for several days without treatment, read another man's suicide note apologising to his family, and seen countless others who suffered similar mental breakdowns,'' they wrote.

The group's letter followed explosive allegations aired on SBS TV's Dateline program on Tuesday night from another whistleblower, former security guard Rod St George, that Department of Immigration staff failed to act on allegations of a series of rapes and assaults at the Manus detention centre.

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