CANBERRA, Australia – Authorities intercepted a boat carrying 48 suspected asylum seekers off the northern coast of Australia in the fifth such detention in 10 days, adding fuel to a continuing political debate over immigration policy.
Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor said there were 48 passengers and four crew on board the vessel, which was apprehended late Wednesday night 78 nautical miles west of Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory.
"The people on board the vessel are safe and have indicated that they wish to come to Australia," O'Connor said in a statement Thursday.
They are being transported to an Australian immigration detention center on Christmas Island, an Australian territory 1,600 miles northwest of the mainland, just south of Indonesia, for health and security checks.
Four other boats carrying suspected asylum seekers have been intercepted off Australia's northwest coast since Sept. 7. The five boats have carried a total of 263 people into Australian territory.
The political opposition blames Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's relaxed immigration policies for the increase in boat arrivals. Last year, Rudd relaxed the mandatory detention policy for asylum seekers and allowed full residency visas for those accepted as refugees, rather than the temporary visas granted by the previous government.
Opposition immigration spokeswoman Sharman Stone said Thursday there has been a complete breakdown of immigration policy and border protection.
"It's an example of this government completely out of control," she told reporters, saying the government trumpeted its interception of the vessels but did nothing to stop the flow of asylum seekers. "For Brendan O'Connor to say, 'Look how clever we've been, we've found another boat,' that's nonsense."
The government says the influx of people is due to violence and insecurity in their home countries and nothing to do with Australian policy.
"People smuggling is not just an issue for Australia; it is a global and regional problem," O'Connor said in Thursday's statement. "Situations around the world mean that large numbers of displaced persons are looking for settlement in wealthy, developed nations like Australia and can be targeted by, and fall prey to, people smugglers."
The latest boat is the 32nd to arrive in Australia since the Rudd government took office in 2007.