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Number of Boat People Trying to Reach Australia Continues to Rise



The number of boat people trying to reach Australia continues to surge, with a new boat recently found. Most are fleeing conflicts in South Asia.

So far this year, about 900 illegal migrants have been found at sea near Australia - four times the number for all of 2008. The surge has authorities worried.

In the latest case, about 73 asylum seekers are being taken to the Australian territory of Christmas Island in the middle of the Indian Ocean for processing.

Most of the migrants trying to reach Australia this year are escaping fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Most travel to Malaysia or Indonesia where people smugglers have established the logistics, however dangerous, to ferry people in search of safety and a better life into Australian waters.

Pamela Curr is a campaign strategist for the Asylum Resource Center in Melbourne. She says more needs to be done to help those seeking to flee troubled homelands.

"The fact of life is there is [are] no formal or thoughtful mechanisms for someone facing death in Afghanistan or Iraq to get out," Curr said. "They go to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Jakarta, they get turned away and told to go to the Australian embassy. They go to the Australian embassy, same thing. This is what they tell me, four to five times they go backward and forward and then where do they go? They go to the people smuggler who offers them a trip on a boat."

The increased numbers has resulted in much closer cooperation among customs agents and police in Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia where Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recently visited and asked for help in shutting down people smuggling.

However, Curr says this will not be enough to stop the current wave of boat people despite the perils of barely seaworthy vessels.

"We can give advice from our perspective and that is 'Don't get on a boat, you stand a good chance of drowning because the boats that are used are boats that are disposable,'" Curr said. "The fishermen who rent them out and bring them across know they are going to be burnt at the other end. So they are not boats that are fit for a return journey."

Curr says despite those warnings, until life in Central Asia and the Middle East improves, and governments in transit countries like Indonesia and Malaysia firmly grasp the issue, the flow into Australia is unlikely to abate.

Members of the conservative opposition blame Prime Minister Rudd for the increased flow, because he eased rules on indefinitely detaining suspected illegal migrants and other policies on boat people. The opposition argues that Mr. Rudd's new policies encourage people to sneak into the country.

Australia accepts more than 10,000 refugees a year, after they have been screened through official programs run by the United Nations and other organizations.

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