Australian authorities intercept fifth boat carrying suspected asylum seekers in two months

PM - Wednesday, 3 December , 2008 18:22:00
Reporter: Sara Everingham

MARK COLVIN: The Federal Government has confirmed that it's intercepted another boat off the coast of Western Australia.

The 35 passengers and five crew are being taken to Christmas Island to be detained and processed. It's the fifth boat that Australian authorities have intercepted by in the last two months.

The Federal Opposition argues that softer immigration policies are encouraging people smugglers to target Australia. Others say there are simply more people seeking asylum around the world.

Sara Everingham reports.

SARA EVERINGHAM: The latest boat was spotted by a surveillance plane off Ashmore Island yesterday afternoon. It's believed the boat had travelled from Sri Lanka but the nationalities of those on board are not yet known.

In the past two months five boats carrying a total of 83 people have made it to Australian waters.

The Minister for Home Affairs Bob Debus.

BOB DEBUS: This is a slight increase in the number of boats that we've had to deal with. But overall, the number of boats, or the number of asylum seekers, remains roughly about the same level as it was last year and the year before.

SARA EVERINGHAM: Since it won office the Federal Government has discarded its predecessor's "pacific solution" and has abolished temporary protection visas.

The Federal Opposition is drawing a link between those changes and the number of recent arrivals.

Philip Ruddock was the former Immigration Minister under the Coalition.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: All of those I believe have been noted by smugglers abroad. They see it as being a changed situation and what we're seeing now is them testing the waters.

SARA EVERINGHAM: Andreas Schloenhardt, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Queensland says it appears that people smugglers are stepping up their activities in the region.

ANDREAS SCHLOENHARDT: Most major refugee flows are these days accompanied by a surge in people smuggling activities. People that try to take advantage of people in very desperate situations, trying to make a quick buck by offering them to bring them to safe havens.

Many people won't ever get there but this is certainly a pattern that we know ever since the Vietnamese refugee crisis in the mid 1970s.

SARA EVERINGHAM: But he says policy changes in Australia are unlikely to be a factor in their thinking.

ANDREAS SCHLOENHARDT: This would suggest that people smugglers are extremely sophisticated and follow very closely political developments and administrative arrangements.

SARA EVERINGHAM: He says the smugglers are responding to demand and that more people are on the move in the region because of the deteriorating security situations in both Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

Professor William Maley from the Australian National University says in Afghanistan more people are trying to get out.

WILLIAM MALEY: What it reflects is the deterioration of security in different parts of Afghanistan which creates a significant push factor for people who having been lead to believe that their lives were going to take a turn for the better are now becoming increasing apprehensive about where things are heading.

SARA EVERINGHAM: Today the Immigration Department has confirmed its received reports that some officials in the Indonesian officials are selling Indonesian visas to people wanting to flee Afghanistan.

An Afghan leader in Brisbane is reported as saying some people are paying as much as $US1,500 for the papers in an attempt to reach Australia.

Professor Maley says that might amount to several people's life savings.

WILLIAM MALEY: It's the worst year that we've seen in quite some time in terms of internal violence in Afghanistan. But it's also the case that internationally there is more discussion going on through channels which become easily audible in Afghanistan about the possibility of attempts to negotiate with the Taliban.

And that of course is extremely alarming for people from Afghanistan's ethnic minorities who have always made up the bulk of those arriving in the country like Australia by boat who fear that they could again be exposed to the kind of persecution which they experienced in late 1990s.

SARA EVERINGHAM: Do you think we could see some of the effects of that here in Australia in terms of more people trying to seek asylum?

WILLIAM MALEY: I don't doubt that that would be the case. I think that movements of peoples from a country like Afghanistan are always much more driven by the circumstances in the country itself, rather than by the circumstances in the wider world.

When things get really desperate, people just move and it's not the conditions to which they are moving but the absolute awfulness of the circumstances that confront them that is the primary motive for their movement.

MARK COLVIN: Professor William Maley from the ANU, ending Sara Everingham's report.


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