SYDNEY (Reuters) - An Australian naval ship on Saturday intercepted a boatload of suspected asylum seekers, a government minister said, the latest in a wave of arrivals that has stoked fears of weak border security.
The boat was stopped near Ashmore Island off Australia’s northern coast, Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor said in a statement. An initial count showed 55 people on board including three crew. Their nationalities were not known.
Border protection is a hot political issue in Australia. Critics blame a new rise in people-smuggling this year on a softer stance on the issue by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, compared to the conservative government he ousted in 2007.
“The group will be transferred to Christmas Island where they will undergo security, identity and health checks as well as establish their reasons for travel,” O’Connor said, referring to the latest arrivals.
Australia has a processing center for suspected asylum-seekers on Christmas Island, an Indian Ocean possession just south of the Indonesian island of Java.
Many of the people-smugglers are thought to be based in Indonesia, although the asylum seekers are generally from war-ravaged countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka.