Four more die in water as 'poison' asylum debate goes on

ONE of Australia's toughest policy issues - asylum-seekers and people smuggling - has been "poisoned by politics", Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said on Wednesday.

Mr Clare spoke after revealing four people had died and 144 asylum-seekers were plucked from the high seas after a boat capsized near Christmas Island on Tuesday.

He said the deaths highlighted the "wretchedly difficult" nature of creating policies to deal with asylum-seekers arriving by boat.

Border Protection Commander Rear Admiral David Johnston said officers had worked in difficult conditions, including two metre swells, to pluck 144 survivors from the water, including up to 19 children.

He said Border Protection Command had also experienced a rise in the "operational tempo" in Australian water, alluding to hundreds of new arrivals in recent weeks.

"Dealing with deaths is particularly difficult, difficult in circumstances, physically difficult for those involved and emotionally difficult," he said.

"It is a dreadful feeling in the stomach when we hear of a vessel that has capsized."

Rear Admiral Johnston said the arrivals had come on a boat which was designed to carry cargo, rather than people, and authorities were still transferring survivors to Christmas Island on Wednesday.

Mr Clare said he wouldn't be surprised if people smugglers tell asylum-seekers anything to get them on a boat.

"If you can put 100 people on a bat, you can make a million dollars. If you can put 200 people on a boat, you can make $2 million," he said.

"The more money they can make, the more people they can get on a boat, even if that costs lives, is what matters to them."

Mr Clare said Australian politicians had been fighting about the issue for 10 years - "Australians are sick of it, and if we are going to fix this problem, we need to work together".

But, despite his call for a bipartisan approach to asylum-seekers, he said it was not appropriate to talk about politics on a day when four people had died.

It is understood those on board included asylum-seekers from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, including three Indonesian crew members.

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