Seventh Asylum Boat Signals Change Of Tactics

Seventh asylum boat signals change of tactics

Paul Maley
The Australian
December 17, 2008

A NEW boatload of suspected asylum-seekers has been intercepted by the Navy 200km northeast of Darwin in a sign people-smugglers may have switched tactics to avoid detection.

The boat carrying 37 people was intercepted early yesterday after it was spotted by a Customs surveillance aircraft.

Yesterday's arrival brings to seven the number of boats intercepted in the past three months and to 164 the number of suspected asylum-seekers that have been caught entering via boat this year, exceeding the 148 who arrived last year.

In parliament two weeks ago Kevin Rudd mocked Opposition claims Australia was experiencing a surge in unauthorised arrivals.

“If this year we have had a surge, that was a deluge,” the Prime Minister said.

But with this year's numbers now exceeding last year's, questions are growing about when the Rudd Government will open the Howard-era purpose-built detention centre on Christmas Island, which has remained empty despite a steadily increasing number of arrivals.

Yesterday, the Immigration Department said accommodation arrangements were still being finalised. The spokesman said current arrangements — a combination of community detention and old construction worker housing — could accommodate up to 446 people.

Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus said the nationalities of those on board yesterday's boat had yet to be established. Nor was it known whether they would seek asylum, Mr Debus said.

They will be transferred to Christmas Island for processing, where they will join 131 other asylum-seekers and eight crew members.

Senator Evans has said there had been an increase in people-smuggling activity, a trend he attributed to greater instability in Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka — the three countries most Australia-bound asylum-seekers coming via Indonesia hail from.

But the Opposition and experts on the ground in Indonesia have said the spike has been driven in part by a perception that Australia's border protection arrangements had deteriorated following a series of measures aimed at softening Australia's treatment of refugees.

Earlier this month the International Organisation for Migration's chief of mission in Indonesia Steve Cook told The Australian there had been a “considerable” increase in people-smuggling activities, which could be linked to changed Australian policies.

“People-smugglers have clearly noted that there has been a change in policy and they're testing the envelope,” he said.

Yesterday's arrival marked the most easterly point reached by the recent spate of unauthorised boats.

Typically, boats disembarking from Indonesia had tracked due south and were intercepted off the northwestern coast, around Ashmore Reef.

Yesterday, a spokeswoman for Mr Debus played down suggestions the location of yesterday's boat could be another example of changed tactics, although she said authorities would investigate the route taken.