DANIEL FLITTON June 12, 2012
The Cocos Islands cluster lies a little under halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka.
THE remote Cocos Islands are being targeted as an asylum destination, with Sri Lanka's top envoy to Australia confirming his government stopped a boat carrying 113 people departing the Indian Ocean nation.
Three boats have arrived in the past weeks carrying 135 asylum seekers to the small Cocos Islands cluster, which lies a little under halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka.
People-smuggling syndicates have not historically targeted the 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 people-smuggling passage will stretch Australia's border patrols, already struggling with a surge of arrivals. The distance from Ashmore Reef to the Cocos Islands is more than 4000 kilometres, a massive expanse of sea for navy and other services to patrol.
Until the past month, just two boats had attempted the nearly 3000-kilometre journey from Sri Lanka to the Cocos, one in 2011 and one in 2010 that had to be rescued when it got into distress.
Sri Lanka's high commissioner in Canberra, Thisara Samarasinghe, told the Herald security services in his country had stopped 113 people 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.''
More than 4000 people have risked the boat journey to Australia so far this year, almost as many as all of last year.
But the political debate over border protection has stalled, with the government waiting on opposition support to revive its failed people-swap with Malaysia.
The Coalition and the Greens have refused to back legislation to fireproof the deal with Malaysia from a decision last year by the High Court to strike it down.
The deputy Liberal leader, Julie Bishop, yesterday defended an opposition plan to refuse refugees who arrive in Australia without documents but who had travelled via another country that required a passport.
Speaking on Sky News, Ms Bishop denied the plan would be in breach of Australia's international obligations and said the Immigration Minister had the power to draw an adverse inference about people without documentation. It was important, she said, for Australia to be ''sending a tough message''.
Meanwhile, federal police have released details about the rescue of 32 asylum seekers found near the Cocos Islands on Saturday after local accounts appeared at odds with official claims that they had been intercepted.
A spokeswoman said smoke was seen rising from the nearby North Keeling Island at 2pm, about 24 nautical miles from the settlement.
Police took a small inflatable boat to the site and 40 minutes later found the group on the island about 300 metres from their vessel. The spokeswoman could not say what was producing the smoke.
The Cocos Islands' harbour master moored a barge 75 metres offshore, and the police ferried the people to it.