Sri Lankan refugees heading down under
THE remote Cocos Islands are being freshly targeted as a destination for asylum seekers, creating a nightmare for Australian border surveillance authorities to cover thousands of square kilometres of open waters.
Three boats carrying 135 asylum seekers have arrived since May 16 at Cocos Islands, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean just over halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s top envoy in Canberra has also confirmed his government recently stopped a boat carrying more than 110 people departing for Australia via the Indian Ocean.
People-smuggling syndicates have not historically targeted Cocos Islands, preferring to send boats to Australian territory closer to Indonesia – either Christmas Island, south of Java, or Ashmore Reef off West Timor.
The prospect of a third route for boat arrivals is bound to stretch Australia’s border patrols, already struggling with a recent surge in smugglers’ operations.
The distance between Ashmore Reef and the Cocos Islands is more than 4000 kilometres, a massive expanse to patrol.
Few boats have made the nearly 3000-kilometre direct journey from Sri Lanka to Cocos Island. One did in 2011 and another in 2010, which had to be rescued.
Opposition border protection spokesman Michael Keenan said most of Australia’s patrol boats were acting as taxis to ferry people to Christmas Island, making it impossible to cover such an enormous zone.
More than 4000 people have risked a boat journey to Australia so far this year – almost the same number as for all of last year. Another two boats carrying 150 people were intercepted off Christmas Island yesterday.
Sri Lanka’s high commissioner in Canberra, Thisara Samarasinghe, told The Agethat security services in his country had stopped 113 people on a boat leaving for Australia three weeks ago. ”Our information is people are being paid by various organisations to come here [to Australia],” Admiral Samarasinghe said.
He discounted the prospect of people fleeing hardship in Sri Lanka, saying people were being deliberately encouraged to make the voyage for propaganda to discredit governments. ”It is a very international racket for the purpose of collecting money,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare last night said any journey across dangerous waters was concerning. She said the solution lay in offshore processing in Nauru and Malaysia, and called on the opposition to back legislation to revive Labor’s people-swap deal with Malaysia.
Deputy opposition leader Julie Bishop has defended as ”sending a tough message” an opposition plan to refuse refugees who arrive in Australia without documents but have who had travelled via another country that required a passport.
Speaking on Sky News, Ms Bishop denied the plan would breach Australia’s international obligations.
She said the Immigration Minister had the power to draw adverse inferences about people without documentation.
Meanwhile, federal police have released details about the rescue of 32 asylum seekers near Cocos Islands on Saturday after local accounts appeared at odds with official claims they had been intercepted.
A spokeswoman said smoke was seen rising at 2pm from the nearby North Keeling Island. Police found the group beached on the island, some 300 metres from their vessel.
The Cocos Island harbour master moored a barge offshore, to which the people were ferried.
Daniel Flitton, National Times, June 12, 2012