CANBERRA, Australia – The Australian government said on Wednesday that a boat carrying dozens of Vietnamese asylum seekers intercepted close to the northwest coast could be sent back to Vietnam.
Some fled Vietnam after their fishing boat was sunk by the Chinese navy near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, a refugee advocate said.
A wooden boat carrying men, women and children was spotted by the crew of an oil tanker on Monday within Australia's offshore oil and gas fields off the northwestern port of Dampier.
The Western Australian state government on Tuesday confirmed that a police boat intercepted the asylum seekers at sea and watched over them until a navy ship arrived.
Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton would release no details of the asylum seekers or their circumstances on Wednesday, citing a government policy of secrecy surrounding its responses to such boat arrivals.
But he said his government would strike a second diplomatic deal this year with Vietnam to send Vietnamese boat arrivals home if they prove not to be genuine refugees.
"If it is safe to do so and we have met our international obligations and we don't owe people protection, then those people will go back to their country of origin," Dutton told reporters.
"People who seek an economic outcome are not true refugees and just because somebody is on a boat does not mean that they are a refugee," he added.
Rights groups complained that Australia secretly held a group of 46 Vietnamese asylum seekers on a warship at sea for almost a month and rejected their refugee claims during interviews that took as little as 40 minutes before returning them all to Vietnam in April.
United Nations refugee agency questioned whether refugee applications can be properly judged at sea.
Doan Viet Trung, a member of the human rights group Voice Australia, said the mother of a 16-year-old boy among the latest asylum seekers had told him from Vietnam that around 45 people were aboard the boat. They left Binh Thuan province on July 2 on their 5,200 kilometer (3,200 mile) voyage to Australia.
Doan said he did not know the detail of their refugee claims. But the asylum seekers included fishermen whose boat had been sunk by the Chinese near the disputed islands. The 11 fishermen were rescued by another Vietnamese fishing boat, he said.
The fishermen had requested Vietnamese government protection to return to the Spratlys, but none was offered, Doan said.
Voice Australia has called for the Vietnamese refugee claims to be process on mainland Australia rather than at sea.
Asylum seeker boat arrivals from Southeast Asia have all but halted since in the past two years since the government began turning back boats and refusing to resettle people who pay smugglers to bring them to Australian shores.
Asylum seekers who are not turned back are usually sent to detention camps run by Australia on the Pacific island nations of Nauru or Papua New Guinea.