The number of refugees seeking asylum in Australia jumped by almost 30 per cent last year despite global numbers remaining steady, challenging Kevin Rudd’s claim that instability abroad is behind the surge in refugee boats.

As Border Protection command yesterday intercepted two more asylum boats, the third in as many days, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released its annual report on global asylum trends.

Yesterday’s boats, which were carrying a total of 79 people, will push Christmas Island well beyond its official capacity of 2040 unless detainees are moved en masse to the mainland or the centre is once again expanded to house the growing population of detainees.

The UNHCR’s report showed virtually no change in the number of people seeking asylum in the industrialised world, with 377,200 asylum applications last year compared with 377,100 in 2008.

But in figures that have fuelled claims the Rudd government has encouraged people-smugglers by softening Australia’s refugee policies, the UNHCR reported a 29 per cent increase in asylum claims in Australia last year.

In a further complication for the government, Indonesian officials yesterday expressed concern at the growing number of its citizens who are incarcerated in Australian jails for crewing asylum boats.

Speaking to The Australian, a spokesman for the Indonesian embassy in Canberra said most of those caught were poor fishermen with no knowledge of the fate that awaited them once in Australian custody.

“Most of the Indonesians detained in Australia in connection with the arrival of boatpeople are poor traditional fishermen, lured by the promise of money (sometimes as little as $US150) from the organised people-smugglers to carry a boatload of passengers who originally come from as far away as Afghanistan,” the spokesman said. “These fishermen are the boat crew and not the masterminds of people-smuggling.”

Yesterday’s figures provoked a statistical jousting match, with the opposition claiming the UNHCR’s report put the lie to the Rudd government’s claim that so-called “push” factors were behind the rising tide of boats.

But the UNHCR’s regional representative, Richard Towle, said they showed nothing of the sort. Citing a 45 per cent increase in the number of Afghan asylum-seekers – the main group arriving in Australia by boat – Mr Towle said violence in source countries was to blame. “If you look at Afghans globally, there are striking increases of Afghans, particularly in Europe,” Mr Towle told The Australian. “I wouldn’t say that what’s happening in Australia bucks the trend at all. I would say it’s entirely consistent.”

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the UNHCR’s report made it plain the Rudd government’s softened policies were drawing asylum-seekers to Australia’s shores. “Afghanistan is hardly a regional neighbour of Australia,” Mr Morrison said. “People are coming here because they believe they’re going to get the outcome that they want as a result of the policies the government is pursuing.”

While the number of Afghans seeking asylum worldwide increased, the number of Sri Lankans climbed by a modest 4 per cent, undermining government claims that an exodus of Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka was one of the reasons for the surge. The Rudd government has repeatedly blamed the fallout from Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war for the rise in boat numbers.

Despite the concern over unauthorised boat arrivals, the UNHCR numbers showed most asylum claims lodged in Australia were made by Chinese with 1186 claims made last year. Afghans comprised the next biggest category (940) followed by Sri Lankans (533) and Zimbabweans (344).

Broken down by region, Europe experienced a 1 per cent increase in asylum claims last year, while North America had a decline of 5 per cent.

Mr Towle cautioned against comparing Australia’s numbers with regional blocs. “If you want to disaggregate it you could look at Australia versus Greece or Australia versus Finland and Norway and you’d get completely different answers,” he said.

Mr Towle added that Australia accounted for less than 2 per cent of asylum-seekers seeking refuge in the industrialised world. The US received 49,000 asylum claims, more than any other industrialised country. The US was followed by France (42,000), Canada (33,300) Britain (29,800) and Germany (27,600). This compared with Australia which received 6170 protection applications in 2009.

While an increase on 2008, last year’s figures remained well below the high-water mark of 2000 when 13,100 people sought protection in Australia.

Yesterday, Border Protection Command intercepted two boats in two hours off Ashmore Reef and Adele Island. The first boat was carrying 19 passengers and three crew and the second was carrying 55 passengers and two crew.

According to the Immigration Department, there are 2008 people on Christmas Island. But the figure does not include the 79 intercepted yesterday or the 22 picked up on Sunday.

It is likely some desperately needed space will be cleared today when a regular charter plane comes to the island to collect staff, asylum-seekers who have been granted visas and possibly asylum-seekers who are deemed to be on “a visa pathway” and close to receiving refugee status.

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