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Customs to beef up watch on islands

Date

Daniel Flitton, Bianca Hall

The near simultaneous arrival of three asylum seeker boats across a vast stretch of ocean has stretched Australia's border patrols as the government concedes more vessels are expected direct from Sri Lanka.

Boats have been intercepted in the past two days at Ashmore Islands, Christmas Island and Cocos Islands, spanning waters about three times the size of the Nullarbor plain.

Sri Lankan police yesterday claimed to have stopped another vessel with 53 people bound for Australia.

The boat carrying 35 people that arrived at Cocos Islands yesterday morning is the fourth in as many weeks, reinforcing the small island cluster of Australian territory in the Indian Ocean as a target for asylum.

Customs and Border Protection command last night told Fairfax aircraft surveillance of the Cocos Islands area was to be increased and more response boats would be deployed.

Federal police only have a small inflatable craft at present, with a commercial barge Minty commandeered for rescues.

The spokeswoman said government agencies were now examining options to extend their presence on the islands for the immediate future.

Locals on Cocos Islands were agitated yesterday after the latest arrival, with managers at the pub having to call in the cleaners to prepare for 35 asylum seekers expected to bunk down at the venue last night, disrupting events planned around the State of Origin rugby league match.

The Cocos Club, one of the main entertainment spots for the islands' 600-strong community, is taken over as a temporary shelter when boats arrive. Demands are growing for the government to fix a derelict and empty quarantine station on the island, with five houses and 10 units to host asylum seekers on the island. Customs said longer-term solutions were being developed to minimise the impact on the community as much as possible.

''In the short term, it may be necessary to use community facilities to house the asylum seekers before they can be transferred to Christmas Island,'' she said.

The latest boats bring to 14 the number arriving in Australian territories in June alone, and well over 4000 people this year.

A boat was intercepted near Christmas Island on Tuesday night carrying 74 people and another with 28 passengers was found near Ashmore Island.

The last of 32 asylum seekers found on Keeling Island were flown to Christmas Island and disembarked wearing face masks.

The immigration department said the decision to use face masks was precautionary only and none of the group was displaying symptoms of poor health.

A spokeswoman for the Australian Tamil Congress, Sam Pari, told Fairfax that Tamils were still fleeing the island three years after the end of Sri Lanka's civil war.

''Tamils continue to fear for their lives in Sri Lanka. The continuing persecution of the Tamil people, the threat of rape, indefinite detention, disappearances - in essence a slow genocide of the Tamil people - is what is driving Tamil people to risk their lives on leaky boats,'' Dr Pari said.

The opposition pounced on the latest arrivals to attack the government's border protection policy.

Shadow customs spokesman Michael Keenan said people smugglers made it clear Cocos Islands was now a destination.

Meanwhile, the government yesterday responded to a parliamentary inquiry that called for scrapping Labor's asylum-seeker swap with Malaysia.

The government rejected the call. with Ben Doherty

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