MELBOURNE, May 24, 2009 (AFP) – The Australian navy intercepted a refugee boat with 77 people aboard Sunday off the country’s northwest coast, Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus said. The boat is the 13th suspected people-smuggling craft to have been stopped in Australian waters or to have made landfall since January, prompting criticism from the opposition about government policies towards asylum seekers.
Debus said the 73 passengers and four crew on the boat would be transferred to an immigration centre on Christmas Island about 2,600 kilometres (1,610 miles) from mainland Australia, for health and security checks.
“The Australian government is committed to strong border security arrangements and is determined to deal effectively and appropriately with people smugglers,” he said in a statement.
Debus did not reveal the nationalities of those on the vessel, although most of the 600-plus boat people intercepted this year have been from Sri Lanka or Afghanistan.
A total of 19 boats have arrived since last September, when the centre-left Labor government rolled back restrictive measures which regularly left asylum seekers, including children, locked up for years in im