Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott has accused the Australian government of “surrendering” on border protection after a boat carrying 66 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers reached the Australian mainland yesterday, the Northern Star reported today.
His comments came as Australian Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare ordered a review of how the boat was able to enter the Geraldton harbour, 400km north of Perth, without being detected.
Abbott, who in the past said Australia was at risk of a “peaceful invasion” from people seeking asylum, told Gold FM in Melbourne the government was increasingly losing control of Australia’s borders.
“It just gets worse and worse all the time and I think, effectively, the government has kind of surrendered,” Abbott said.
“And the problem with surrendering on boat people is that, in the end, it discredits the whole of our immigration program.”
Clare said the language used by Mr Abbott and opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison was “not helpful”.
“It’s indicative of the bigger problem with this debate. The political parties have been fighting about this now for more than a decade and it’s politics that have poisoned this debate,” Clare told ABC radio.
Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor went a step further, saying Abbott’s comments were proof he was “not fit for prime ministership”.
He also made the point 19 boats reached the Australian mainland under John Howard’s leadership.
The latest arrival, which will be the subject of a Customs and Border Protection investigation, was the first asylum-seeker boat to reach the Australian mainland in five years.
The Customs probe will determine whether sea patrols need to be widened. Clare said the Geraldton incident was “very unusual”.
“I was briefed by Customs and Border Protection last night and again this morning. Their preliminary advice to me is they think the vessel travelled directly from Sri Lanka to Geraldton,” he said.
“So they travelled much further south than vessels normally travel when they’re travelling a shorter distance to Cocos Island or to Christmas Island. All of our patrol boats and our surveillance aircraft are targeted at the northwest, where 99% of vessels arrive and are intercepted.”
Clare said a sign on the boat indicated it was attempting to get to New Zealand, which could explain why it was so far south. More would be known once the asylum seekers were interviewed, he said.
The 66 asylum seekers, comprising men, women and children, will be taken to Christmas Island for screening.
“If at that point it’s identified that they don’t meet the requirements of the Refugee Convention then they’ll be flown back to Sri Lanka,” Clare said.
More than 900 Sri Lankan asylum seekers have been sent home since August 13 last year.