In a possible case of sabotage, three people are dead and two are missing after an explosion on a wooden fishing boat off the coast of Australia, which was carrying Afghan asylum seekers. The boat was waiting to be escorted to a detention centre on Christmas Island off the coast of Western Australia by Australian navy vessels.
The opposition accuses Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of being "soft" on asylum seekers
Investigations continued into what the exact cause of the explosion was on Thursday. The premier of the state of Western Australia, Colin Barnett, said in a press conference that there had been human interference.
"What I think is clear is that the refugees spread petrol over their boat. Whether they ignited it or it just ignited is unknown at this stage, but clearly that caused a major explosion, not only injuring refugees, but of great concern is that four defence personnel, were also significantly injured during this incident," he said.
Barnett revealed that these details came from the state's emergency operations unit, which had been given the information by the Northern Territories military command.
The federal government refused to confirm details of the incident, saying that an official investigation would be undertaken. Early reports said that 46 people had been injured in the explosion. They were being treated at hospital facilities in Broome, Darwin and Perth.
Sixth boat of asylum seekers since January
This was the sixth such boat carrying asylum seekers to enter Australian waters off the northern coast since January.
Numbers have increased since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd ceased the so-called "Pacific Solution" policy that was introduced by John Howard’s conservative government and sent asylum seekers headed for Australia to holding camps on Pacific Island nations such as Nauru or Papua New Guinea.
This policy greatly decreased the flow of illegal arrivals by boat especially as refugees could be detained offshore for years.
Now, asylum seekers arriving by boat are held in a purpose-built processing facility on Christmas Island, an Australian territory to the south of the Indonesian island of Java. Six-monthly case reviews by an ombudsman are now government policy.
Debate raged for years under the Howard government regarding its hard-line stance against illegal arrivals. But politically, it worked in its favour during the 2001 election, when public opinion swung to the right after a number of incidents involving large numbers of asylum seekers.
For example, the so-called "Tampa incident” when several hundred asylum seekers in distress were picked up at sea by a Norwegian tanker off Christmas Island that was headed for Australia.
Opposition accuses Rudd of a “soft touch”
The current opposition has criticised Rudd’s government for not continuing the “Pacific Solution” policy and says that its "soft touch" will now lead to further border protection problems and loss of life.
"Everything must be done,” Australian opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull, recently said. “Every measure must be undertaken to discourage and prevent this very pernicious business of people smuggling. It is a dangerous, unlawful and very life-threatening business."
Apart from the change of domestic policy, conflicts in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan have fuelled the flow of refugees in recent months.
The current government is worried about the rise in numbers arriving through Indonesian waters.
Australia has been negotiating with the Indonesian government to push through new laws enabling the criminal prosecution of people smugglers. As yet, however, these laws have not been brought into force in Indonesia.