Refugee boat sinks off Australia, reopens border security debate
CANBERRA (Reuters) - A fishing boat carrying nearly 100 asylum seekers capsized off Australia's west coast on Monday, authorities said, turning the spotlight on the sensitive issues of refugee policy and border protection ahead of a general election in September.
Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said two people had died and another 93 were rescued after the boat overturned north of Christmas Island, midway between Australia and Indonesia.
Despite the fact Australia receives a small number of the world's asylum seekers each year, asylum seekers and border controls will be hot-button issues for voters later this year.
"This is a government that cannot control themselves, let alone our borders. And with illegal boat arrivals in 2013 getting off to the fastest start on record, things only seem to be getting worse," conservative opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said.
The sinking comes as Prime Minister Julia Gillard re-shapes her government following a botched leadership coup last week.
Polls put the conservatives on track to easily win the September 14 ballot, boosted by a promise to boost border security.
The U.N. refugee agency said last week that Australia received more than 16,000 claims for asylum in 2012, a 37 percent rise on the year before.
Refugees seeking asylum in Australia often set sail from Indonesia or Sri Lanka, heading for Australia's Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island in dangerous and overcrowded boats, with the help of people smugglers.
Since 2001, almost 1,000 people have died at sea while attempting to reach Australia on overcrowded and often unseaworthy refugee boats.