Australian PM condemns 'scum' people smugglers
By TANALEE SMITH
The Associated Press
Friday, April 17, 2009; 4:26 AM
SYDNEY — Australia's prime minister denounced people smugglers who set hopeful refugees adrift in rickety boats as “scum” and pledged Friday to step up efforts to thwart them, after one vessel exploded at sea and killed three people.
The small wooden fishing boat was carrying 47 Afghan asylum seekers and two crew when the blast occurred off Australia's coast on Thursday.
The death toll could rise, because two people were still missing at the explosion site hundreds of miles (kilometers) from the coast and five others were on life support in an Australian hospital, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and hospital officials said.
Rudd said his government would take a tough line against people smugglers, who are paid by would-be immigrants to transport them to a new country. In Australia's case, the asylum seekers often come by boat from Indonesia.
“We are dedicating more resources to combat people smuggling than any other government in Australian history,” Rudd told reporters in Sydney, adding that people smugglers were the “the scum of the earth.”
“People smugglers are the vilest form of human life because they trade on the tragedy of others,” Rudd said. “We've seen this lowest form of human life at work in what we saw on the high seas yesterday.”
The explosion occurred as the small boat _ which had been apprehended by the Australian navy a day earlier _ was being escorted by the navy to the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island, where the government processes refugee applicants.
The boat sank after the blast and the survivors were loaded onto navy ships; 31 injured people were flown by helicopter to Australian hospitals and the remaining 13 people were taken on a navy ship to Darwin, where they arrived Friday afternoon and were met by police, immigration officials and medical personnel.
Rudd and other government officials have refused to speculate on the cause of the explosion, citing ongoing investigations. But the premier of Western Australia said Thursday the boat was doused with fuel before the explosion.
It was not clear why the boat's occupants would try to sabotage their own vessel, though they may have been worried that they were being sent away from Australia.
Former Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock told The Australian newspaper that intercepted boats were often disabled by those on board in the belief that would prevent them being returned to Indonesia or other countries.
The Northern Territory and Australian Federal police were conducting the investigation, interviewing survivors from the boat as well as the Australian navy personnel who were escorting the boat to Christmas Island.
Australia in recent months has seen an uptick in illegal arrivals by sea _ most of whom are fleeing violence in Afghanistan and Iraq _ stirring a debate that split the country several years ago about how leniently they should be treated.
Rudd's government has come under fire from opposition politicians who claim that an easing of strict immigration regulations last year has emboldened people smugglers and would-be refugees. But the prime minister on Friday stressed that Australia's hard-line stance against people smuggling has not changed.
He said the government was working closely with Malaysia and Indonesia to stem the problem. Convicted smugglers face a maximum penalty of 20 years in jail.
Australia has long been a destination for people from poor, often war-ravaged countries hoping to start a new life. Many typically fly to Indonesia before continuing to Australia aboard cramped, barely seaworthy boats.
Since Rudd's government relaxed the immigration policies last July, 13 boats carrying more than 400 people have entered Australian waters. The boat involved in Thursday's incident was the third in the past two weeks and the sixth this year.