Boats May Be Work Of Syndicate

Boats may be work of syndicate

Sarah Smiles
The Age
October 8, 2008

A PEOPLE-smuggling syndicate may have been behind operations to bring two boatloads of asylum seekers to Australia in the past week, says the Immigration Minister.

Senator Chris Evans has received intelligence that the boats left their departure point in West Timor at similar times and may have been linked.

The first boat, carrying nine Afghans, three Iranians and two Indonesian crew members, was found off Ashmore Reef on September 30. A second boatload of 17 people was intercepted by the navy in the Timor Sea on Monday, where it had pulled up alongside an offshore oil facility.

The Iranian and Afghan nationals – including two Afghan teenagers – had since told immigration officials they did not wish to return home, Senator Evans said.

The second group is en route to Christmas Island, where their claims will be assessed. The group is believed to include 14 Middle Eastern asylum seekers and three crew members, including one woman.

Senator Evans denied that the boats indicated a “surge” of asylum seekers was heading for Australia.

Opposition immigration spokeswoman Sharman Stone has accused Labor of going “soft” on border security.

She said smugglers had been emboldened by Labor's cut to the immigration budget, which pulled migration officials out of foreign embassies, and the abolition of temporary protection visas, which deny unlawful arrivals found to be refugees the instant right to stay in Australia.

An Indonesian immigration official agreed yesterday that Australia's new policy could increase “opportunities” for people smugglers.

The spokesman for Indonesia's directorate-general of immigration, Maroloan Barimbing, said the effect of policy changes “depends on our co-operation in Indonesia and bilaterally. We must continue the current co-operation and, if necessary, increase it.”

Australian officials privately say people smugglers are becoming more sophisticated, using the internet to monitor immigration policies.

Two boats have arrived this year, compared to five last year, carrying 148 people, and six in 2006, carrying 60 people.

“In my view there's no indication of a surge, but there is a constant battle against people-smuggling in the region and the Labor Government remains committed to combating that as strongly as we can,” Senator Evans said.

UNHCR spokeswoman Ariane Rummery said there was no evidence to suggest there had been a surge of asylum seekers coming to the region.

“Compared to other parts of the world, where there are many more people arriving in boats, these are really small figures. We would just ask people to keep this in perspective,” she said.

“Last year a total of 19,900 people arrived in Italy's islands or the mainland by boat from North Africa, and in 2006 it was 22,000,” she said. “In Yemen in August alone, 59 boats brought more than 1700 people across the coast of Yemen.”

Pamela Curr, campaign co-ordinator with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said: “Thirty-one people is simply people who are seeking security and a new life any way they can.”