Second boatload of illegals held

By Paul Maley
7 October 2008

A SECOND boatload of illegal migrants has been intercepted in the Timor Sea while heading for Australia, undermining an assurance by the Rudd Government that Labor's softening of its refugee policy has not been exploited by people smugglers.

A wooden fishing boat carrying 17 people, believed to be three crew and 14 passengers, landed at an offshore oil facility called the Front Puffin in the Timor Sea at 1.30pm AEST yesterday.

The Front Puffin is located at the Puffin oil field, which is in Australian waters about 700km west of Darwin.

The people in the fishing boat, who are understood to be from the Middle East, were later picked up by the navy. Last night, they were en route to Christmas Island, where they will join a second boatload of suspected asylum-seekers who arrived almost exactly a week before them.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans denied the latest arrival was a consequence of Labor's recent changes in policy.

``While people smugglers have continued to be active, regional governments have been effective in preventing people-smuggling activities in recent times,'' Senator Evans said.

``This is only the second unauthorised boat arrival this year, compared with five last year, six in 2006 and four in 2005.'.

However, Opposition immigration spokeswoman Sharman Stone said the arrival of the second boat cast serious doubt on claims by Senator Evans that the increased activity by people smugglers was unrelated to policy changes. ``This arrival means Minister Evans needs to rethink Labor's border security policies and re-examine the budget processes,'' Dr Stone told The Australian last night. ``They took a great swipe out of the budget -- over $60 million. They need to evaluate their priorities.'.

Last week, Dr Stone said the arrival of the first boat suggested people smugglers were ``testing the waters' to see if Labor's changes made it easier to get to Australia.

Her concerns found some support with at least one senior government official familiar with the people smuggling networks, who told The Australian the smugglers closely tracked changes in Australian policy.

In late July, Senator Evans unveiled a new ``risk-based'' approach to immigration detention and expanded review arrangements for people who lodge claims outside Australia's migration zone. Under the changes, detainees on Christmas Island can expect access to taxpayer-funded migration agents' advice should they lodge an asylum claim.

If their claims are unsuccessful, they will have access to an independent review of their decision.

Yesterday, Senator Evans' office was refursing to say if the 14 people intercepted 320km off Australia's north west coast last week had indicated they would lodge claims for asylum. That group is believed to comprise three Iranians, nine Afghanis and two Indonesian crew members.

Dr Stone yesterday indicated there would be no major shift in Coalition immigration policies. She said Labor had co-opted most of the Howard government's policies on immigration, while presenting the few, mostly minor, changes it had made as major reforms.

``Labor got caught up somewhat in making political mileage out of detention ... and has found in government, in fact, it has quite a different situation to manage,'' she said. ``It's doing that with some changes, but not the sort of changes that a lot of the supporters imagined must be forthcoming.'.

She defended one of the most controversial aspects of the Howard government's border protection regime, the Pacific Solution, as a ``crisis response'' that was justified by the circumstances. ``At the time, when we didn't have other offshore facilities, it served that purpose and I'm sure also helped to reduce the flotilla that was heading off from Indonesia.''

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