Govt defends boat rescue policy
July 5, 2012 - 4:19PM
The federal government is defending itself against claims asylum seeker boat captains are using the navy like a roadside pick-up service to get their passengers to Australia.
Labor and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) don't deny cases of people smugglers telling passengers to "ring Australia" for a ship to come and meet them but say to do otherwise would risk lives.
However, the opposition says navy commanders should have the option of turning boats back to Indonesia if it is safe to do so, and that current policy is sending the wrong message to smugglers and their customers.
"What's happening in terms of asylum seekers using the navy as an NRMA in order to come to Australia is just another symptom of the government's complete failure to protect our borders," coalition frontbencher Christopher Pyne told Sky News on Thursday.
On Wednesday, a boat carrying 162 people issued a distress call at 4.30am (AEST) saying it was taking on water in rough seas about 50 nautical miles south of Indonesia.
HMAS Wollongong found the boat intact and heading to Australian waters under its own power.
It shadowed the boat until the seas subsided and then boarded it before 8.30pm (AEST).
The passengers were later transferred to the Wollongong and HMAS Leeuwin and taken to a detention centre on Christmas Island, off the West Australian coast.
Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said authorities had to treat each event seriously.
But he concurred with AFP commissioner Tony Negus that captains of asylum-seeker vessels sometimes called authorities "early" on their way to Australia.
"We've seen that," Mr Negus told reporters in Canberra on Thursday.
"We've seen actual cases of asylum seekers and captains ringing the Australian authorities early, whether they are at Christmas Island or earlier, over the last couple of years."
Mr Negus said it was not a new phenomenon and stressed authorities would respond.
"We are doing everything humanly possible here to protect people from what are perilous voyages across the sea and to stop people drowning unnecessarily," he said.
Asked whether the navy should use force to turn boats around, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said, "Under our policy they would have the option of taking those steps that are necessary to get that boat turned around."
Under the former Howard coalition government, naval personnel boarded boats to ensure they were seaworthy.
"They would remove fuel from the vessels so that the only option for those vessels was to return to Indonesia," Mr Abbott said.
But Mr Pyne said there was too much focus on the coalition's "turning back the boats" policy.
"The vitally important part is offshore processing (on Nauru and) of course the return of temporary protection visas," he said.
Of those people taken to Christmas Island on Wednesday, three were described as having "medical requirements".
Two weeks ago a boat carrying about 200 people capsized on its way to Christmas Island, leaving an estimated 90 people dead.
Another boat carrying 134 people sank last week, leaving four people dead.
Federal parliament last week failed to pass laws that would have restored the government's power to send asylum seekers to other countries for processing.
© 2012 AAP
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