Search for suspected missing asylum seeker boat

July 22, 2013
Bianca Hall, Daniel Hurst and Dan Harrison

Authorities are searching for a suspected asylum seeker vessel, reported missing on the way to Christmas Island.

A spokeswoman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said an Australian P3 Orion aircraft had spotted the boat earlier this morning, but there was now no sign of the boat.

It's described as being an Indonesian-style fishing boat with a pale-green hull, about 12 metres long. AMSA said it believes there are 20-30 people on board.

AMSA issued an alert to shipping vessels in the area about 10.24am, asking all ships within 100 nautical miles of Christmas Island to be on the lookout for the boat.

An Australian Navy boat has also been involved in the search this morning.

This comes amid fears detention facilities in Papua New Guinea will be swamped within days if the Rudd government's hardline new asylum seeker policy fails to quickly stem the arrival of 3000 people to Australia by boat each month.

The arrival of 837 asylum seekers in the past week alone - bringing the total this year to more than 15,000 - is set against a capacity for only 300 on Manus Island.

The government has admitted asylum seekers will be held in Australia for the time being as it races to expand PNG facilities and bring them up to United Nations-mandated standards for health and education provision.

But on Sunday it refused to say how much the policy of transferring all boat arrivals to PNG would cost or how soon the upgraded, expanded facilities on Manus Island would be ready.

If it fails to provide suitable conditions in the impoverished nation, the Coalition and legal experts have warned of court challenges in both countries.

Some Afghan Hazaras waiting in Indonesia's Puncak area told the ABC they had abandoned plans to make the boat journey to Australia because of the new policy, announced on Friday. But they urged the government to improve the speed of official UN asylum application processing in Jakarta. About 10,000 refugees are estimated to be waiting in Indonesia to be resettled.

Immigration Minister Tony Burke said facilities on Manus Island were not at the standard they needed to be, especially for children, and he had to ensure they complied with the UN refugee convention and the High Court ruling that struck down the Malaysia people-swap deal.

This included providing appropriate accommodation, services and schooling. Mr Burke declined to say how long the work would take but insisted it would not be long.

He said the deal to transfer people was unlimited, despite PNG saying it would be constrained by its capacity to accommodate people. ''If we end up with a large number of people coming, then a large capacity will be put in Papua New Guinea,'' he told ABC TV.

''There is a limit to how many you would be able to put on Manus Island but the agreement is not limited to Manus Island.''

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said the plan complied with Australian and international law but legal experts cast doubt on assurances that asylum seekers would be protected, given that PNG had such widespread problems looking after its own people.

International expert on refugee law at the University of Melbourne, James Hathaway, said on Monday that the ''Australian Attorney-General is wrong''.

''The [refugee] convention itself says that you cannot penalise refugees for arriving without authorisation,'' Professor Hathaway said.

Mr Rudd's plan was doing exactly that, he argued, because it was taking people seeking asylum and ''dumping them into the hellhole of PNG''.

''[It is] in my view both an illegal penalty and a discriminatory penalty which puts Australia in breach of the convention.''

And children's rights organisation Plan International warned of ''great division'' if resettled refugees' conditions were markedly better than those of PNG people.

Australia's travel advisory warns of poor health facilities, cholera, malaria, high HIV/AIDS infection rates, high levels of serious crime including rape, and laws against adultery and homosexuality.

The deal between Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his PNG counterpart Peter O'Neill says both countries ''take seriously their obligations for the welfare and safety'' of people transferred.

Ben Saul, a professor of international law at the University of Sydney, said it was hard to see how PNG would give refugees decent housing, education, healthcare and employment given the difficulties its people had securing such rights.

''PNG's one of the poorest countries in the world. It can't provide basic rights for its own people so do we really think PNG is going to prioritise making these rights for refugees over their own citizens?''

Professor Saul said the cost of the plan would be ''astronomical'' and the logistics difficult.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said those to be transferred to PNG would initially face health and security checks in Australia, allowing lawyers to stifle the process through court challenges.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said the agreement did not ensure every person who came to Australia by boat would be transferred to PNG. ''This is simply something that is held together by Blu-Tack and sticky tape to last through to the election if possible,'' he said.

Climate Change Minister Mark Butler, from the Left faction, admitted some discomfort within Labor ranks about aspects of the policy but said something needed to be done.


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