An uncrewed vessel crammed with 54 people intercepted off the West Australian coast at the weekend has raised new concerns about the number of asylum-seekers attempting the treacherous journey to Australia’s shores. Over the past fortnight, Australia’s border protection authorities have intercepted six boatloads of asylum-seekers, adding to logistical pressures on Christmas Island’s detention facilities and political pressures on the Rudd government.

Details of the latest vessel, which was found adrift in international waters on Saturday afternoon, were released yesterday. The 54 people, including one child, were without food and water when first sighted by Border Protection Command P-3 Orion aircraft about 550 nautical miles (1018km) north of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. The group, whose nationalities were not disclosed, asked for refuge in Australia and last night were en route to Christmas Island for security, identity and health checks.

Their rescue prompted the opposition to again accuse the government of going soft on border protection. But Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor yesterday pointed to Canberra’s $654 million strategy to combat people-smuggling as proof it was taking the problem seriously. “The Australian government is pleased that the group is safe, but it is only through Border Protection Command’s and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s vigilance that these people escaped greater harm,” he said. However, he said that the illegal voyages were “extremely dangerous”. “Drownings at sea are not uncommon,” he said.

And while the new arrivals are stretching the resources of the facilities on Christmas Island, the island’s nearest Australian neighbours, the Cocos Malays of Home Island, will soon be working at the Howard government’s Immigration Detention Centre under a plan by community leaders to reduce chronic unemployment on their tiny homeland. Serco, the contractor that will take over the operation of Christmas Island’s Immigration Detention Centre from G4S next month, intends to hire Cocos Malays to work in administration, social care and client services. Their roles could include helping asylum-seekers prepare food or attend a variety of classes, a Serco spokeswoman said.