SYDNEY – Canberra and Jakarta have agreed to do more to combat "smuggling gangs" that have ferried thousands of asylum seekers into Australian waters so far this year. Human rights groups say the trade in people is lucrative and is expanding. Despite the deaths of dozens of unauthorized arrivals in recent weeks, the boats continue to set sail.
More than 4,000 asylum seekers have been intercepted in Australia's northern waters so far this year. The numbers are modest by international standards, but enough to spark a bitter political debate.
Both the Labor government and its conservative opponents want to send asylum seekers to neighboring countries to have their claims for refugee status processed. It is argued that those who take the dangerous gamble trying to reach Australia by boat would think again if they knew they could be sent for processing in another country.
While the political impasse continues, more boats have arrived. Refugee advocate Marion Le says they are bringing asylum seekers from various countries.
"We seem at the moment to be having quite a number that are coming through from Sri Lanka, but some people now apparently in the last couple of weeks have got on boats in India and come through," said Le. "But the majority of the boats over the last few years have been coming from Indonesia, and they have been Afghan, Iraqi and Iranian asylum seekers with a few other people, but that is the majority of those ones coming through Indonesia."
Le says that many of the clandestine trafficking gangs are hard to identify because they are shadowy groups that pay young Indonesians to transport asylum seekers into Australian waters.
"As for the people smuggling, usually the people behind the boats are pretty well hidden," said Le. "They buy the boats [and] increasingly they are putting young boys from Indonesia in to crew those vessels."
Sayad Kasim, a Rohingya Muslim, fled Burma with his family. After seeking shelter in neighboring Thailand, he traveled to Malaysia and on to Indonesia.
In January 2010, he paid traffickers $3,000 for a place on a small boat that was intercepted by the Australian navy. He says everyone onboard was praying and thought they would die in the rough seas. He was eventually rescued and detained for six months on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, before being granted a refugee visa.
Kasim is now fighting to arrange safe passage for his wife and four children, who remain in Malaysia.
"I love my children," said Kasim. "I am looking for Australia [to provide a] better life to them, not for me."
Ali, 26, from Iraqi, also traveled by boat that left Indonesia's southern coast in December 2009. He, too, was intercepted by the Australian navy.
"It was a very hard experience, [it] just was a little boat and about 58 or 68 persons on that boat," said Ali. "It just was like a point in the ocean."
The computer programmer now lives in Brisbane where he is forging a new life away from the violence and privations of Iraq.
"The reason that we come to Australia was that we put our lives in this little boat, and risking our lives because we had the reason," added Ali. "If we had a good life, if we had, like, an opportunity to survive, you know, and be alive in our country we would not go and seek asylum in other countries. We came here to stay alive."
Australia has resettled about 750,000 refugees since 1900, including Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, Vietnamese escaping war in the 1970s and, more recently, persecuted minorities from Sudan and Afghanistan.
Canberra grants refugee protection visas to about 13,000 people each year under various international agreements.