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More Suspected Asylum Seekers Found Off Australia

Another boat carrying suspected illegal immigrants has been found in Australian waters, the fifth in the past two months. Opposition politicians argue that softer immigration policies have encouraged people smugglers to target Australia. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

The latest arrivals were spotted by a surveillance plane in the Indian Ocean near Ashmore Island, which is the closest Australian territory to Indonesia.

Thirty-five passengers and five crew members will be taken into custody on Christmas Island, where those claiming to be refugees will have their asylum applications processed. Details of their nationalities were not immediately released.

Immigration analysts say that a surge in violence in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka has dislocated many people. They often pay criminals large amounts to take them illegally to places like Australia.

Andreas Schloenhardt, a law lecturer at the University of Queensland, says that gangs of traffickers are intensifying their activities in the Asia-Pacific region.

"Most major refugee flows are these days accompanied by a surge in people smuggling activities. People that try to take advantage of people in very desperate situations, trying to make a quick buck by offering them to bring them to safe havens," said Schloenhardt. "Many people won't ever get there, but this is certainly a pattern that we know ever since the Vietnamese refugee crisis in the mid 1970s."

In recent weeks four boats carrying suspected asylum seekers from Indonesia have been intercepted by Australian authorities, while a fifth is thought to have sailed from Sri Lanka.

The conservative opposition has blamed lax immigration policies for encouraging boat people to try to reach Australian waters.

Earlier this year, the government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd abandoned the controversial practice of detaining all migrants who entered the country illegally. The government has closed down refugee centers that the previous conservative government established on South Pacific islands to process asylum applications from those caught trying to reach Australia illegally.

Government ministers say the changes have not made Australia a soft target for people smugglers and say that border protection remains a priority.

Australia resettles about 13,000 refugees a year under official humanitarian programs.