Kevin Rudd faces biggest boatpeople spike since Pacific Solution
Paul Maley and Paige Taylor
May 06, 2009
AUSTRALIA is facing the biggest spike in unauthorised boat arrivals since John Howard implemented the Pacific Solution, with the Australian navy intercepting another boatload of asylum seekers northwest of Broome.
As immigration officials on Christmas Island last night prepared to process the 50 arrivals, believed to be Afghans and Iraqis, the issue opened a split within the Liberal Party, with prominent backbencher Bronwyn Bishop accusing Malcolm Turnbull of “going soft” on border security.
Yesterday's interception occurred 370 nautical miles northwest of Broome.
The boat, the 11th detected this year, was picked up by the navy patrol boat HMAS Maryborough at about 8.30am AEST after it was spotted by a Customs Dash 8 aircraft.
The boat was taking on water.
It is the 18th boat to be detained since the Rudd Government announced a softening of detention policies last September.
All told, the boats have carried a total of 676 people over the same period, according to Immigration Department figures.
Of those, 497 people have been detained this calendar year.
And in a trend that will have the Rudd Government worried, the frequency of interceptions appears to have increased, with eight boats detected in the past month.
Yesterday, senior government sources warned that the boats would continue to come.
“It will be at least as busy or busier than it has been,” the source said, referring to the number of boats likely to be intercepted in the weeks and months ahead. The source cited favourable conditions at sea, an abundance of boats and the brimming global pool of refugees displaced by violence in the Middle East as reasons for the surge.
If the current pace of interceptions were to continue, the number of arrivals for this year would rival the 1212 intercepted in 2001-02, the year the Howard government introduced the Pacific Solution of offshore processing centres.
In the years after the Pacific Solution, the flow of boats slowed to a trickle, a fact the Howard government attributed to the tough message the policy sent to people-smugglers.
However, Immigration Minister Chris Evans has said the reason for the decline was increased co-operation with Indonesia.
High as the numbers are, refugee groups have been at pains to point out they are not close to rivalling the tens of thousands of unauthorised arrivals who enter into Europe annually. Nor are the numbers approaching the 4175 boat arrivals detected in Australian waters in 1999-2000, the peak of the most recent surge in boat arrivals.
Speaking to reporters in Sydney, the Opposition Leader said yesterday's arrival made it clear Labor's border protection policies had failed.
“There cannot be any serious argument about that now,” Mr Turnbull said. “It has failed to stop the dreadful business of people-smuggling.”
But he was forced to fend off criticism over his own handling of the issue, after Ms Bishop was quoted in a local Sydney newspaper, The Manly Daily, saying the Opposition Leader had “gone soft” on the issue.
Mr Turnbull rejected the claim.
As the number of arrivals continued to grow, there were signs the influx was testing the resources of the navy and of the detention facilities on Christmas Island.
Eighteen children and five women are thought to be among the 186 passengers aboard HMAS Tobruk, the warship carrying asylum seekers from three interceptions since April 25.
Eight of the children range in age from five to 14, and the rest have told authorities they are 17.
Immigration officials on Christmas Island are due to meet this morning to discuss how the Immigration Detention Centre and family compound will accommodate the new arrivals.
Already, dormitories with bunk beds have been set up at the detention centre where 192 single males currently stay in single rooms and twin-shares.
Yesterday, there were 266 men, women and children in detention on Christmas Island, with 41 in a family compound of transportable huts designed for construction workers who built the centre.
Also last night, four male asylum seekers who were found dumped last month on a remote island in the Torres Strait were due to arrive at Christmas Island under guard on a commercial flight from Perth.
The men were spotted by a surveillance flight on Deliverance Island, 30 nautical miles from Papua New Guinea.
They were taken to a detention centre on Horn Island for health and security checks.
Yesterday's arrival came a day after The Australian revealed that at least a dozen of the boat people to arrive as part of the present wave were return visitors.
At least four of those who have arrived since October had been granted temporary protection visas for Australia – and had since left – and at least five had been detained on Nauru. About 138 of those that have arrived by boat have been resettled in Australia after their claims were approved.
But yesterday, the Immigration Department was unable to say how many of those people, if any, had been refused entry on previous occasions.
A spokesman for the department said calculating an answer would involve too onerous a drain on resources.