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Rudd vows tough measures to deter boats

Australia targets asylum seekers

Bloomberg, AFP-JIJI

Australia will prioritize work to stem the flow of asylum seekers attempting to reach the country by sea, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Saturday, after an infant drowned in a boat attempting to reach the country from Indonesia.

The body of a boy less than 1 year old was recovered as 88 people were rescued from a vessel that began to sink Friday north of Christmas Island, Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare told a press conference in Sydney on Saturday. A search to locate some eight people still missing was suspended Saturday, based on medical advice on survivability, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.

AMSA said the search and rescue operation was called off after dark Saturday. “This decision was made based on the high probability that anyone alive would have been found during the day and on medical advice on survivability,” AMSA said.

“This tragedy underlines the absolute importance for Australia to continue to adjust its policies to meet changing circumstances in the region and in the world when it comes to border security,” Rudd told reporters in Brisbane Saturday.

Suspected asylum seekers from countries including Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka were among the 97 people aboard the vessel, which began to take on water on Friday, Clare said.

Australian authorities Saturday intercepted two suspected asylum seeker boats, one carrying 105 people that needed assistance off the coast of Christmas Island, and a second with about 50 passengers and two crew aboard off the coast of the Ashmore Islands, Clare’s office said Sunday in an emailed statement. A boat carrying 197 asylum seekers was stopped on Thursday after it also ran into difficulties.

Rudd, who last month ousted Julia Gillard to return as prime minister, is seeking to tackle voter discontent over the government’s inability to stem the flow of asylum seekers ahead of a national election that must be held by November. That failure has helped erode voter support for Rudd’s ruling Labor party, with opposition leader Tony Abbott pledging to “stop the boats.”

Asylum seekers have become a controversial political topic in Australia, something that is likely to loom large in the lead-up to national elections to be held later this year.

The conservative opposition accuses Labor of losing control of Australia’s borders and proposes using the navy to tow back people-smuggling boats — a plan not welcomed by Jakarta.

From 2002 to 2004, 69 refugees sailed to Australia on three boats, while last year 17,202 arrived on 278 vessels, according to figures from the Refugee Council. Since October 2009, 805 asylum seekers have died attempting to reach Australia, according to the Department of Immigration.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said he will host a meeting of officials from nations including Thailand, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Iran and Myanmar on the issue after talks with Rudd. The Australian leader is seeking a halt to departures from those countries before asylum seekers embark on journeys that typically culminate in paying people-smugglers in Indonesia for a place on a boat.

“Our response in terms of elevating the work we do cooperatively with the Indonesians and others is now urgent,” Rudd said Saturday. He called the issue “an absolute priority for me, an absolute priority for the government.”