Joe Kelly, in The Australian, 4 January 2012
A GROUP of 46 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers has been rescued after spending Christmas and the new year drifting about 330 nautical miles off Sumatra in a failed bid to enter Australia. Indonesian search and rescue agency Basarnas was first alerted to the disabled vessel on December 23 by Australian authorities after a tip-off from a recently arrived asylum-seeker. But the stranded boatpeople were not picked up until Tuesday by a nearby merchant ship and were transferred to an Indonesian search and rescue vessel before being taken to the Indonesian port of Teluk Bayur in Padang yesterday.
A spokesman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority yesterday said the rescue was co-ordinated by Basarnas with limited technical assistance from Australia. “AMSA provided communication support and issued broadcast to shipping throughout the incident,” he said. “We received information from a person recently rescued from an asylum-seeker vessel that there was another vessel that was disabled west of Sumatra.”
A fourfold increase in people-smuggler networks in Sri Lanka has driven a huge increase in the number of economic migrants seeking entry to Australia. The government has responded by returning home Sri Lankan asylum-seekers without legitimate claims, with the Immigration Department confirming yesterday that 832 have been returned since August 13.
More than 6500 Sri Lankans have arrived in Australia since the middle of last year with the government agreeing in December to expand the security relationship with Colombo in an attempt to crack down on the people-smuggling trade.
The Coalition has seized on the record number of boat arrivals that came to Australia last year, to say more vessels arrived than during the entire 12 years of the Howard government. Already this year, one asylum-seeker vessel carrying 43 passengers has required assistance to the west of Darwin with Border Protection Command making arrangements for the passengers to be transferred to the mainland for initial security and identity checks.