A classified report has confirmed that the boatload of Sri Lankan asylum seekers who arrived without warning on the West Australian coastline last month had been sailing for New Zealand, the New Zealand Herald reported today.
It diverted from its course after the captain decided weather and other safety issues were too risky to continue beyond Australia.
The sudden appearance of the boat at Geraldton, north of Perth, alarmed authorities who had no idea of the boat’s presence in Australian waters, despite an intense surveillance screen.
It was the first to land on the mainland in five years.
The asylum seekers had sailed directly from Sri Lanka on a course far to the south of the route taken by most boats on the dangerous Indian Ocean crossing, greatly extending the time at sea.
Yesterday the Customs and Border Protection Service confirmed New Zealand as the boat’s destination after an assessment that included data on board the boat and interviews with the captain.
“When the master realised it was not possible to complete the voyage as planned due to weather delays and safety concerns, he steamed towards the Western Australian coastline seeking a populated location for assistance,” the service said in a statement.
The boat carried signs asking for help to get to New Zealand, but the asylum seekers were placed in detention in Australia.
The Government has already sent 36 back to Sri Lanka after they failed to demonstrate conditions required for asylum.
Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor said their return sent a “powerful message” that asylum seekers who paid people smugglers were throwing their money away and placing their lives at risk.
The remaining 26 are in detention awaiting the processing of claims.
Although concerns were raised about the deployment of Customs and Border Protection aircraft and ships after the boat’s arrival at Geraldton, the service said no major changes were required.
“The classified assessment also concluded [our] aircraft and vessels were deployed appropriately given the information available at the time and that the onshore response to the arrival was managed effectively,” its statement said.
But the statement said upgraded “flying squads” should be considered to help handle unexpected arrivals in remote areas.
Last year, 10 members of China’s banned Falun Gong movement were rescued north of Darwin after their boat broke down en route to New Zealand.
After officials explained the dangers of continuing their voyage, the group decided to apply for asylum in Australia.