Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has reached an unwelcome milestone after the 100th boat carrying asylum seekers arrived under his watch. Yesterday’s embarrassing century was immediately seized on by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, who claimed Labor had lost control of Australia’s borders. And with hundreds of boat people expected to arrive in coming months, the Government is bracing for a voter backlash when the election is held later this year.
Adding to the Government’s concerns was yesterday’s escape by three Chinese nationals from Sydney’s Villawood Detention Centre. That takes to seven the number of escapes from the centre in the past month and eight for the year so far.
Anxious Government MPs admit voters are growing increasingly concerned about the breach of Australia’s borders and many are demanding tougher action.
In the latest incident, two boats carrying a total of 85 asylum seekers were intercepted by naval vessels, one near Christmas Island yesterday and another near Ashmore Reef northwest of Western Australia on Sunday night. The refugees were last night on their way to Christmas Island.
With the election year less than three months old, a near record 32 boats have already arrived in Australian waters. They have carried 1574 asylum seekers – most from Afghanistan which has seen increased hostilities following the resurgence of the al-Qaeda-aligned Taliban.
The Rudd Government claims the surge in boat people arrivals is due to global factors, however the Opposition blamed what it called Mr Rudd’s softer border policies.
Fresh from completing his weekend triathlon, Mr Abbott hit out at the Government for softening its immigration policies. “The Government plainly is at sixes and sevens over this,” Mr Abbott said. “Today the 100th boat has arrived at Christmas Island since the Rudd Government abandoned the Howard government’s border policies.
“We’ve had 89 asylum seekers transferred from Christmas Island to Villawood, allegedly for security reasons, and yet some are escaping. This really is a Government that has lost control of Australia’s borders.”
The Opposition reported that the hot button issue was causing major concerns in marginal seats, particularly in regional areas. It will run a tough election campaign arguing that Mr Rudd’s decision to scrap the Coalition’s tougher border-control measures had been a key factor in the increased arrivals.
Some Labor MPs are reporting an increase in community concern over the refugee issue. “It’s not going to lose us an election but it is causing us grief,” one senior Labor MP said.
But the Government is unlikely to revert to Mr Howard’s tougher border protection measures, which included temporary protection visas and offshore processing under the so-called Pacific Solution.
The Government is now being forced to send planeloads of asylum seekers on to the mainland as it tries to prevent the Christmas Island detention centre from being clogged with new arrivals.
Apart from the 89 moved from Christmas Island to Villawood on Saturday, another 51 detainees were transferred to various mainland locations last week. The Immigration Department has a facility at Darwin on standby to take the spillover from Christmas Island but the Government is trying to avoid using this. Another transfer from Christmas Island is expected to be made today, with many of them granted visas.
Senator Evans has said the 89 already transferred to Villawood were on a “removal pathway” after having their claims for asylum rejected.