12 June 2012

New problem for Australian immigration as boats head to Cocos Islands

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Australian immigration authorities have a new problem to contend with as asylum seekers head to the Cocos Islands rather than Christmas Island, stretching authorities' resources thinner and increasing the likelihood of disaster.

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Australian immigration authorities are concerned about a potential influx of asylum seekers to the Cocos Islands.

Australian immigration authorities have so far intercepted three asylum boats carrying 125 Sri Lankan asylum seekers headed for the Cocos Islands in the past four weeks.

The Cocos Islands is a tiny group of islands in the Indian Ocean located approximately halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka. As the islands are a territory of Australia, asylum seekers can reach the islands in a day less and can then rely on Australian authorities to transport them safely to the mainland or to Christmas Island for processing.

However, the islands' small size has left many within the government and on the island concerned that facilities on the islands are unable to cope with the sudden influx of asylum seekers.

"We just don't have the ability to house these people. [The immigration authorities] and Serco have been great this time in that they're bringing food in, but the island just doesn't have the facilities to have all the extra people here," said Maxine McCartney, manager of the Cocos Club which is currently housing 32 Sri Lankan asylum seekers.

With boat arrivals already reaching record levels, over 4,000 already this year, authorities are preparing for their worst ever year with as many as 9,000 predicted by December. And with one disaster already prevented over the weekend, concern is beginning to grow which could see a repeat of the disaster which saw hundreds drown in December 2011 when their boat encountered difficulties in rough waters.

The government is currently as a standstill over asylum seeker policy with the opposition refusing to negotiate on the government's failed people swap deal, the Malaysia Solution. The opposition want to reinstate the policies of their previous government which saw boat arrivals practically reach zero.

While discussions continue to stagnate and more boats arrive, politicians from both government and opposition continue to blame each other for the ongoing situation.

Opposition immigration spokesperson said the Australian immigration authorities were over stretched already and ill equipped to deal with the developing situation on the Cocos Islands. Mr Morrison said the situation had reached a 'tipping point' and risking another disaster.

"The government is now the problem," said Mr Morrison. "They have become so identified with these failures they lack any credibility. Too much time has passed, too many failures."

A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Chris Bowen insisted the opposition's reluctance to negotiate legislation which would revive the Malaysia Solution was the reason why boats continued to arrive.

"The boats will keep on coming and people's lives put at risk on the high seas as long as [Leader of the Opposition] Tony Abbott puts his own political interest ahead of the national interest."

The Australian Visa Bureau is an independent migration consultancy specialising in helping people lodge their Australia visa applications with the Australian Embassy.

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