Australia Accused of Returning To Convict Ship Era

Australia accused of returning to convict ship era
The Telegraph, U.K.
By Nick Squires in Cairns

(Filed: 04/08/2006)

Australia plans to use an armed prison ship to hold illegal fishermen and “boat people” in a move that critics say smacks of the country's convict origins.

Under the plan, naval and customs patrol boats will no longer have to return to port to deposit asylum seekers and poachers detained at sea.

“The vessel will have the capability to remain at sea for extended periods and operate independently in waters around Australia,” said Chris Ellison, the customs minister.

Terry O'Gorman, the president of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties, called it “an immigration prison ship”. He said: “It's a delicious historical irony that Australia was founded on convicts who were moved from prison hulks in the Thames. Now we are repeating history.”

The vessel, which could be operating by January, would carry up to 30 armed customs officers and two deck-mounted machineguns. It would be able to hold up to 30 detainees for up to a month.

Hundreds of Indonesian fishing boats are caught operating illegally off Australia's north coast each year. Earlier this year, a two-week operation caught 23 fishing boats and nearly 200 crew.

Asylum seekers could also be detained, although the flow of boat people has been reduced to a trickle since Canberra started sending them to offshore holding centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Most are eventually sent home.

The opposition Labour Party said the best way to tackle poaching at sea was to establish a full-time coastguard, which Australia currently lacks.

Joe Ludwig, an opposition spokesman, said: “What you are going to have is illegal fishers being held in detention on a boat out at sea for 30 days in the ship's brig. It seems a little bit cruel to me.”