Australia Treats Asylum Seekers After Boat Explosion

Australia Treats Asylum Seekers After Boat Explosion (Update1)

By Ed Johnson
April 17 (Bloomberg)

Thirty-one injured asylum seekers were airlifted to Australia for medical treatment after their boat burst into flames yesterday as it was being escorted by a navy patrol.

Eight refugees, mostly Afghan males, are being treated at the Royal Darwin Hospital for burns, head injuries and fractures, five of whom are on life support, general manager Len Notaras told reporters today. The others have been sent to hospitals in Perth and Broome in Western Australia.

The wooden fishing vessel with two crew and 47 refugees on board caught fire early yesterday more than 800 kilometers (500 miles) off the northwestern coast as it was being escorted to Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory that houses a processing center for asylum seekers.

Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus declined to speculate on what caused the fire, after Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett yesterday told reporters some of the refugees had spread gasoline on the boat. The government is not going to go where governments have sometimes gone in the past, speculating about these sorts of incidents, politicizing them, Debus told Sky News today.

The issue of illegal immigration is politically sensitive for Prime Minister Kevin Rudds Labor government, which has been accused by the opposition of being weak on border security.

Island Camps

Since winning office in November 2007, Rudd has moved to dismantle his predecessor John Howards policy of detaining refugees in island camps and has pledged to speed up the process of assessing claims for asylum. The government last year closed detention centers on the Pacific island of Nauru and on Manus, a province in Papua New Guinea.

All asylum seekers intercepted at sea will now be detained on Christmas Island while they undergo checks. They have access to legal assistance and an independent review of decisions.

Asylum seekers who make it to mainland Australia will now be locked up only as a last resort while they are processed.

The opposition says the new policy has made Australia a more attractive destination to people smugglers. The boat was at least the fourth vessel carrying suspected illegal migrants to be intercepted off Australia since January.

People Smugglers

People smugglers in Indonesia were very interested in the election campaign in Australia and of course they followed very closely the debate that took place, former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. today. These people hope that we run a slacker, or as lax a policy as possible.

Rudd told reporters today he has dedicated more resources to border protection than any previous Australian government.

The government says it is working with countries in the region to stop traffickers smuggling people from the Middle East and Central Asia through transit points in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Australia this week co-hosted international talks on people smuggling with Indonesia on the island of Bali, where Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said people fleeing the conflicts in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan were contributing to an increase in illegal migration.

The refugees were taken aboard navy vessels after their boat sank and were evacuated by helicopter to Truscott air base in Western Australia, the military said.

Thirteen more refugees with less serious injuries are scheduled to arrive in Darwin today in a navy ship. The Australian Federal Police and Northern Territory Police are investigating the cause of the fire, while navy vessels are continuing to search for two people missing from the boat.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ed Johnson in Sydney at

Last Updated: April 17, 2009 01:05 EDT