Australia Warns Boat People Heading to Its Shores
By Phil Mercer
Voice of America
29 June 2009
Australia has intercepted a boat carrying almost 200 illegal migrants and is warning of a surge in displaced people heading to its shores from Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The vessel is the largest of the 15 boats of unauthorized arrivals detained in Australian waters so far this year.
The Australian navy intercepted the boat carrying 194 people, believed to be Sri Lankan Tamils, about 40 kilometers from Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean.
The suspected asylum seekers have been transferred to an immigration center on Christmas Island, where they will undergo health and security checks.
The Christmas Island detention facility can hold 800 inmates and houses asylum-seekers while their claims for refugee status are processed.
In Canberra, officials say there has been a sharp increase in the number of displaced people moving through the region to escape conflicts in South Asia, and that many would attempt to reach Australia by boat.
Immigration Minister Chris Evans says the government is “very concerned” about the continued arrival of illegal boat people.
“We've got an awful lot of people moving through Southeast Asia at the moment; the worsening situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan and of course the developments in Sri Lanka means that there's a lot of people seeking safe haven throughout Southeast Asia, and many of them hoping to come to Australia,” Evans said.
The arrival of more boat people has renewed accusations by opposition politicians that the government is too soft on immigration.
Critics say that Australia has become a more attractive destination for people traffickers and call for an independent inquiry into why more boat people were trying to reach the country's northern waters.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has dismantled some of the more controversial elements to Australia's asylum policy since coming to power in late 2007. Among other changes, the government closed offshore processing camps in remote parts of the South Pacific.
Mr. Rudd also relaxed a policy of detaining all migrants who enter illegally, and has allowed full residency visas for those granted refugee status.
The Labor government says that border protection remains a priority and that about $524 million will be spent boosting surveillance and combating people smuggling.
Australia accepts about 13,000 refugees under official international humanitarian programs every year.