Asia

Sri Lanka refugee boat sails into busy Australia port

File photo (March 2013) of Tamil asylum seekers in Indonesia
Image caption Hundreds of Tamil asylum seekers have made their way to Australia via Indonesia in recent months

Australia has ordered an inquiry as to how a boat carrying 65 Sri Lankan asylum seekers was able to sail undetected into one of the country's busiest ports.

The vessel docked at Geraldton in West Australia, 425km north of Perth.

Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett described the case as a serious and unacceptable breach of border security.

It is one of only a few boats carrying refugees to reach the mainland in recent years.

The vessel is believed to have been carrying mostly Tamil people escaping what they say is persecution at the hands of Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority.

It is a perilous journey that can last several weeks, with those on board surviving on meagre rations in treacherously rough seas.

Meanwhile a group of about 20 predominantly Tamil Sri Lankan asylum seekers in Australia say that they have gone on hunger strike over the refusal of the authorities to release them from holding camps even though they have been given official refugee status.

Medical experts say they are concerned for the health of the hunger strikers, who cannot be deported because of their refugee status.

'Intercepted'

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said that border protection authorities had advised him that the Geraldton boat had taken an unusual route to get to Australia.

"They believe the vessel travelled directly from Sri Lanka to Geraldton, which meant that it travelled in a way that is south of the main surveillance area, south of where most of our planes and patrol boats are focused," he said.

"All of our patrol boats and our surveillance aircraft are targeted at the north-west where 99 per cent of vessels arrive and are intercepted."

He said that he had ordered customs and border protection authorities to review the circumstances of the case and advise him as to whether changes are needed to the way seas in the north-west are patrolled.

Australia has in recent months deported hundreds of Sri Lankans who were not given refugee status. Mr Clare said strict rules would also apply to the Geraldton boatload.

"If these people don't meet the refugee requirements then they'll be flown back to Sri Lanka," he said.

Correspondents say that Australia is facing a steady influx of asylum-seekers arriving by boat, many of whom use Indonesia as a transit hub.

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