SYDNEY – Australia’s conservative opposition unveiled plans Thursday for a military-led response to repel boat people, branding the problem a “national emergency” after the government declared a radical new policy aimed at crippling people smuggling.
With tens of thousands of asylum seekers risking their lives on leaky boats to reach Australia, the Tony Abbott-led opposition said they would put a senior military commander in charge of a joint agency task force to deal with the problem if the coalition comes to power.
More than 15,000 boat people have arrived so far in 2013, with the influx becoming a major policy issue ahead of national elections due by the end of November. Opinion polls suggest Abbott will beat Labor’s Kevin Rudd and assume office.
“There is a national emergency on our borders,” Abbott said as he launched his Operation Sovereign Borders plan. “This is one of the most serious external situations that we have faced in many a long year. It must be tackled with decisiveness, with urgency, with the appropriate level of seriousness.
“That’s why we need to have a senior military officer in operational control of this very important national emergency.”
A three-star commander would report directly to the immigration minister, with Abbott saying the scale of the problem “requires the discipline and focus of a targeted military operation.”
The response comes nearly a week after Rudd unveiled the ruling Labor Party’s new hard-line policy, under which no unauthorized boat arrivals will be settled in Australia. Instead, they face banishment to poverty-stricken Papua New Guinea for assessment, and will be either settled there, sent back home or shipped to third countries.
The opposition’s immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, said Abbott’s proposal was drawn up after years of work with senior defense advisers, adding, “Operation Sovereign Borders is about having a clear mission, a clear chain of command and a clear policy framework for doing that.”
He claimed that under Labor, 12 separate government agencies are involved in border security.
Abbott has previously announced he would instruct the defense force to turn back boats when safe to do so, while helping Sri Lanka and Indonesia, the main transit countries, to intercept vessels departing their shores.
More bodies recovered
Rescuers have recovered the bodies of two more asylum seekers who were aboard a boat that sank off Indonesia, raising the death toll to 11, police said Thursday.
The bodies of a Sri Lankan girl, 5, and an Iranian man, 30, were found near Karangpotong Beach early Thursday, 15 km south of where their overcrowded tugboat sank Tuesday night off the coast of West Java.
Nearly 190 survivors were carried to safety, and hundreds of rescuers and fishermen were continuing to search for others.
Officials have said the group was believed to consist of around 204 migrants from Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq who were bound for Australia. They left on a smaller boat that started leaking before meeting a larger ship at sea that was supposed to complete their journey.