THE near-simultaneous arrival of three asylum seeker boats across a vast area of ocean has stretched Australia’s border patrols as the government concedes more vessels are expected from Sri Lanka.
Boats have been intercepted in the past two days at Ashmore Island, Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands – spanning waters roughly three times the size of the Nullarbor Plain. Sri Lankan police claimed yesterday to have stopped another vessel with 53 people bound for Australia.
The boat carrying 35 people that arrived at the Cocos Islands yesterday is the fourth in as many weeks, reinforcing the small island cluster of Australian territory in the Indian ocean as a target for asylum seekers.
Customs and Border Protection command told the Herald aircraft surveillance of the area was to be increased and more response boats deployed as more boats were likely to arrive from Sri Lanka.
Federal police only have a small inflatable craft at present, with a commercial barge, commandeered for rescues.
A spokeswoman said government agencies were examining options to extend their presence on the islands.
Locals were agitated yesterday after the latest arrival. Managers at a pub had to call in cleaners to prepare for 35 asylum seekers expected to bunk down at the venue last night, disrupting planned State of Origin events. The Cocos Club is used as a temporary shelter when boats arrive.
Demands are growing for the government to fix a derelict quarantine station to host asylum seekers on the island.
Customs said longer-term solutions were being developed.
The boats bring the number to have arrived in Australian territories in June to 14. More than 4000 people have arrived this year.
A boat was intercepted near Christmas Island on Tuesday with 74 people. One with 28 passengers was found near Ashmore Island. About 3000 kilometres separates the three islands.
The last of 32 asylum seekers found on Keeling Island – about 24 nautical miles from Cocos’s main island – were flown to Christmas Island and disembarked wearing masks.
The Immigration Department said the use of masks was precautionary and the group had not displayed signs of poor health.
Last week, a boat carrying 151 Tamils left the neighbouring state of Kerala bound for Australian territory, but Indian police intercepted it. Last month in Sri Lanka, 113 men were arrested as they prepared to board a trawler heading for Australia.
A spokeswoman for the Australian Tamil Congress, Sam Pari, told the Herald that three years since the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, Tamils were still fleeing. “An end to the war has not resulted in peace for the Tamil people,” she said. ”Tamils continue to fear for their lives in Sri Lanka.”
The opposition pounced on the arrivals to attack the government’s border protection policy. The opposition customs spokesman, Michael Keenan, said people smugglers had made Cocos Island a destination.
“Border Protection Command currently has no presence in the area – Labor is relying on a small contingent of unequipped AFP officers to intercept asylum seekers, despite the great personal health and safety risks to all involved,” he said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the government yesterday rejected a parliamentary inquiry that called for scrapping its asylum-seeker swap with Malaysia.
Daniel Flitton, Bianca Hall with Ben Doherty, National Times, June 14, 2012