Australia PM Furious Over Asylum Militant Claim

Australia PM furious over asylum militant claim

By Rob Taylor
Thu Oct 22, 2009 12:43pm IST

CANBERRA (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd angrily denounced accusations that militants may be slipping into Australia among asylum seekers, charges which threaten to revive an immigration row that divided the country in 2001.

Surging asylum numbers, including Afghans, Sri Lankans and Iraqis, have catapulted border security to the centre-stage of Australian politics, eclipsing public concern over rising official interest rates and joblessness, expected to peak next year.

A high-profile opposition lawmaker, Wilson Tuckey, said the numbers of asylum seekers arriving off the north coast could be providing an ideal screen for militants to stage attacks in Australia, a close U.S. ally with combat forces in Afghanistan.

“If you wanted to get into Australia and you have bad intentions what do you do?” Tuckey said. “You go on a system where nobody brings their papers, you have no identity, you have no address.”

With elections a year away and the government seemingly unassailable in polls, Rudd accused rivals of trying to re-stoke the asylum debate.

“To go out there and to smear asylum seekers in the way in which Mr Tuckey has done I say again is divisive, I think is disgusting,” Rudd said.

Divisions over asylum seekers carried conservatives to an unexpected victory in 2001 when then prime minister John Howard sent commandos on to a Norwegian freighter at sea to stop 433 Afghans arriving in the country.

Australia receives just a fraction each year of what the United Nations estimates to be around 15.2 million refugees globally. Australia in 2008 saw 4,750 people seek asylum, while 333,000 claims were made in Europe.

More than 42 boats have arrived in Australian waters over the past year since Rudd's government won power and eased immigration laws, with the latest intercepted by Australia's navy on Thursday with around 32 people on board.

Asylum seekers polarise opinion in Australia and surveys show around 76 percent of people are concerned about the asylum influx stretching government detention capabilities.

Rudd this week held talks with Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono about a pact to combat people trafficking, including more aid for Jakarta in return for interception in Indonesia of Australia-bound asylum boats.

(Editing by Nick Macfie)