Australia May Expand Detention Center Amid Influx of Refugees
By Ed Johnson and Jesse Riseborough
Oct. 14 (Bloomberg) -- The Australian government said it may further expand its offshore detention center for asylum seekers as the opposition blamed weak border controls for an influx of refugees from countries such as Sri Lanka.
The government has added 200 beds at the center on Christmas Island, more than 800 kilometers (500 miles) off the northwestern coast, where refugees are held while they undergo checks, the Immigration Department said today.
The capacity may be further increased “as part of our contingency plan,” Immigration Minister Chris Evans told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
The opposition says 41 boats carrying almost 2,000 refugees reached Australian waters since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Labor government changed asylum rules in August 2008. The issue of illegal immigration is politically sensitive for Rudd, who is accused by the opposition of weakening the policies of his predecessor John Howard.
“This Labor government is soft on national security and has completely lost control of our borders,” Sussan Ley, the opposition justice and customs spokeswoman, said in a statement. “What kind of message is this sending to the insidious world of people smugglers?”
Since winning office in November 2007, Rudd has moved to dismantle Howard’s “Pacific Solution” policy of detaining refugees in island camps and has pledged to speed up the process of assessing claims for asylum. The government last year closed detention centers on the Pacific island of Nauru and on Manus, a province in Papua New Guinea.
Intercepted at Sea
All asylum seekers intercepted at sea are now detained on Christmas Island, where they have access to legal assistance and an independent review of decisions. Asylum seekers who make it to mainland Australia are locked up only as a last resort while they are processed.
The opposition says the new policy has made Australia a more attractive destination to asylum seekers and boosting people smuggling.
The number of refugees on Christmas Island this week reached more than 1,000 and a further 56 are on their way after their boat was intercepted two days ago, the Immigration Department said. Capacity has been increased to about 1,400 from 1,200 and there are “contingency plans in place” to further increase accommodation on the island, the department said in an e-mailed statement.
The government denies its policies are attracting asylum seekers and says conflicts in countries such as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka have led to a global increase in refugees.
“This is a global and regional problem,” Rudd told ABC radio today. “Our approach to people smuggling and our approach to asylum seekers is tough but humane.”
The prime minister said he speaks regularly with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on how to tackle people smuggling.
A boat carrying 260 Sri Lankan asylum seekers was detained by the Indonesian navy at the weekend after Rudd asked Yudhoyono to intervene, the Australian newspaper reported.
The refugees, who boarded the boat in Malaysia 13 days ago after flying there from Sri Lanka, yesterday threatened to blow up the wooden craft if the Indonesian navy forced them to disembark at the port of Merak, according to the report.
Australia says it’s working with countries in the region to stop traffickers smuggling people from the Middle East and Central Asia through transit points in Malaysia and Indonesia.