DANIEL FLITTON June 12, 2012
The remote Cocos Islands are being freshly targeted as an asylum destination, with Sri Lanka's top envoy to Australia confirming his government stopped a boat carrying more than 110 departing the Indian Ocean nation.
Three boats have arrived in the past weeks carrying 135 asylum seekers to the small Cocos Islands cluster, lying a little under half way between Australia and Sri Lanka.
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.
Two boats were intercepted in waters off Christmas Island yesterday with 150 people on board.
But the prospect of a third passage of boat arrivals is bound to stretch Australia's border patrols. Only occasional boats in the past have ventured the nearly 3000 kilometres journey direct from Sri Lanka to Cocos Island - one last year, and one in 2010, which had to be rescued when it got into distress.
More than 4000 people have risked boat journeys to Australia so far this year - almost the same number as in all of last year.
Sri Lanka's High Commissioner in Canberra, Thisara Samarasinghe, told Fairfax that security services in his country had stopped 113 people leaving on a boat three weeks ago, bound for Australia.
''Our information is people are being paid by various organisations to come here,'' 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.
The political debate around border protection has stalled, with the government waiting on Opposition support to revive its failed people swap with Malaysia.
But the Coalition and the Greens have refused to back legislation to fireproof the deal with Malaysia from the decision by the High Court to strike it down.
Deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop yesterday defended as ''sending a tough message'' an Opposition plan to refuse entry to refugees who arrive in Australia without documents, denying the plan would be in breach of Australia's international obligations.
Meanwhile, federal police have released details about the rescue of 32 asylum seekers found near Cocos Island 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, about 24 nautical miles from the settlement. Police took an inflatable boat to the site and found the group beached on the island, some 300 metres from their vessel. The spokeswoman could not say what was producing the smoke.
The Cocos Island harbour master then moored a barge around 75 metres offshore, and the police ferried the people one-by-one to the barge.