A boatload of suspected Iraqi asylum seekers skirted border patrols and landed on Wednesday on a remote Australian island, officials said, becoming the third group of people to reach the country’s territorial waters in a week.
The opposition Liberal Party says the increase in boat arrivals is a result of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s relaxation of the country’s refugee policy last July.
While the small boat slipped into Flying Fish Cove overnight, an Australian Border Protection Command vessel was about 3.7km off Christmas Island waiting to unload 63 suspected refugees who had been picked up from another boat in Australian waters last week.
Christmas Island, about 1,000km from mainland Australia, has a processing and detention center for people believed to be seeking asylum who try to reach Australia by boat.
A Customs official said the people on the boat included women and children and were believed to be Iraqis.
Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus said in a statement that the 38 people will be detained for health, security and identity checks and to determine the reason for their voyage.
The government originally said there were 45 people on the boat but later revised the number to 38, plus one crew member.
Australia has long been a destination for people from poor, often war-ravaged countries hoping to start a new life. Most of the asylum seekers in recent years have come from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.
They typically fly to Indonesia before continuing to Australia aboard cramped, barely seaworthy boats.
The number of boats had dwindled after the previous government imposed unlimited detention for illegal immigrants and made it difficult to get refugee visas. But since Rudd’s government relaxed some of those policies last July, 11 boats carrying more than 340 people have entered Australian waters, three of them in the last week.
The opposition’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Julie Bishop, expressed concern that the boat was not spotted by border patrols.
“It’s clear that there are a number of supposed boat arrivals that the government is not aware of, and it’s becoming clear that Australia’s border security is being compromised by budget cuts and incompetence by the Rudd government,” she said.
Debus said in his statement that the government’s priority was to ensure the Australian mainland was secure.
Government officials and refugee advocate groups say the newcomers are driven by conflicts at home, not by Australia’s immigration policies.
“The opposition is merely trying to whip up hysteria on this issue,” a Home Affairs Ministry spokeswoman said by e-mail.
“The government was elected on a platform that included a commitment to implementing more humane policies for the treatment of those seeking our protection,” she said on condition of anonymity in line with department policy.
Rudd’s government has limited detention to 12 months and gives accepted refugees permanent visas instead of the three-year visas provided by the previous Liberal government.