CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said on Tuesday he had raised concern about surging refugee arrivals with his Indonesian counterpart, prompting Indonesia’s navy to seize a boat packed with hundreds of asylum seekers.
Rudd said he phoned Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as weekend intelligence reports pinpointed a boat carrying 260 Sri Lankans headed for Australia through the Sunda Strait, between Java and Sumatra islands.
“Working with our friends in the region is important to deal with this because of the huge push factors coming from political disturbances in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, and the wider Middle East,” Rudd told Australian radio.
Indonesia is a frequent transit country for asylum seekers aiming to get to Australia from conflict-torn countries.
Following Rudd’s call to Yudhoyono, an Indonesian warship intercepted what officials described as a “cargo ship” carrying the Sri Lankan group on Sunday near the volcanic island of Krakatoa, the West Australian newspaper reported.
Rudd’s personal intervention underscores deep concern in Australia over surging asylum arrivals, prompting conservative opposition lawmakers to blame the arrivals on softer immigration laws since Rudd took office in 2007.
A survey by the Lowy Institute for International Policy on Tuesday found 76 percent of respondents were concerned about unauthorized asylum seekers, underscoring the risk the issue could damage Rudd’s popularity ahead of elections next year.
But any perception by Indonesia’s fiercely-nationalistic media and sections of the parliament that Yudhoyono had bowed to a request from Rudd could spark criticism of his own government.
Separately, Australia’s navy intercepted another vessel near Ashmore Island north of Darwin, with 56 passengers and two crew on board, Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor said.
Former immigration minister and conservative opposition lawmaker Philip Ruddock — architect of a hardline policy dumped by Rudd of sending asylum seekers into a detention on small Pacific island nations — said up to 10,000 people a year could now be targeting Australia, up from 161 in 2008.
More than 1,600 have arrived so far this year, as part of what the government says is a surge of 42 million forcibly displaced people around the world since 2008.
Home Affairs Minister O’Connor said people smuggling was a world-wide problem and Australia was committed to working closely with neighbors to address the issue, including sending Australian police and immigration officials to Indonesia.
“Situations around the world mean that large numbers of displaced persons are looking for settlement in stable, democratic nations such as Australia, and can be targeted by, and fall prey to, people smugglers,” O’Connor said.
Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani