Sixth Boat Of Refugees Arrives

Sixth boat of refugees arrives

Tom Arup and Tom Allard
The Age
April 16, 2009

THE sixth boatload of asylum seekers this year has been intercepted on its way to Australia in what sources say is part of a people-smuggling operation.

The boat was carrying 49 people believed to be from the Middle East, and was boarded by navy officials yesterday afternoon near Ashmore Reef.

The recent influx of boat arrivals, four this month, is likely to spark debate about the Rudd Government's changes in December to Australia's border-protection procedures.

Last night, Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus, who along with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Immigration Minister Chris Evans, is in Bali for a people-smuggling conference, released a statement defending the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service.

“Border Protection command's surveillance operates every day of the year to protect Australia's mainland and includes aerial, sea and land patrols to detect and respond to maritime threats,” he said.

In December, the Government moved border protection responsibilities from the navy to Customs.

Last week, a boat carrying 38 Iraqi asylum seekers made it past an Australian Border Protection vessel undetected and docked at a wharf on Christmas Island.

Opposition immigration spokeswoman Sharman Stone seized on the fact of the latest boat's arrival during the Bali summit.

“While Australia must more actively co-operate with all of the countries along the route of the people smugglers, it cannot simply pass the buck while it slashes funding and clearly leaves its new, renamed agency, Australian Customs and Border Protection authority, in chaos,” Dr Stone said.

She repeated her call for an urgent inquiry into border protection operations and said the Government had to stop blaming other countries for the increase in boat arrivals.

Yesterday's arrival brings the total number of asylum seekers coming to Australia by sea to 270 people so far this year, exceeding the 164 boat people who came last year.

These numbers are still below the highs in Australia in 2001-02 when six boats brought 1212 people.

Mr Smith warned participants at the conference that the global recession was likely to lead to a surge in economic refugees.

This potential new source of asylum seekers comes as the number of people fleeing war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka is increasing, along with the size and sophistication of the human trafficking syndicates that facilitate their journeys.

Four boatloads have now turned up on Australian shores this month, just as the people-smuggling season begins.

While the dislocation and hardship associated with war and poverty is spurring people to give up their savings to seek a better life elsewhere, Australian officials privately concede that the Federal Government's decision to abandon the Pacific Solution is being used as a marketing tool by people smugglers to attract customers.

The Pacific Solution heavily criticised by refugee advocates and the United Nations, among others resulted in many asylum seekers who arrived in Australia being swiftly deported to Nauru or Papua New Guinea for processing.

In his opening remarks to the conference, Mr Smith cited the problems in Sri Lanka and along the Afghan-Pakistan border and said: “There remain protracted refugee situations in our region which provide a significant push to irregular migration.

“The current global financial and economic crisis may well also encourage more people to seek economic opportunities outside their own borders,” he said.

Meanwhile, it was announced Australia will donate $3.2 million for aid programs to help Burma's Rohingya minority.

However, a solution to the plight of the persecuted Muslim ethnic group remained elusive yesterday.

The Rohingya came to prominence this year when Thailand's military was accused of towing boats carrying up to as many as 1000 asylum seekers out to sea and leaving them to drift without adequate food and water.

A substantive diplomatic effort to stop the practice and the alleged mistreatment of the Rohingya by Burma's military junta had been repeatedly deferred to yesterday's Bali meeting.