Rudd Vows Focus on Asylum Seeker Boats as Baby Drowns

Australia will prioritize work to stem the flow of asylum seekers attempting to reach the country by sea, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said yesterday, after an infant drowned in the second of two incidents last week involving boats bound from Indonesia.

The body of a boy less than a year old was recovered as 88 people were rescued from a vessel that began to sink July 12 off Australia’s coast, north of Christmas Island, Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare told a press conference in Sydney yesterday. A search to locate some eight people still missing was suspended today, based “on medical advice on survivability,” the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in e-mailed statement.

“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 yesterday.

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 July 12, Clare said. Australian authorities a day earlier intercepted a boat carrying 197 asylum seekers after it 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.”

Death Trips

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.

Indonesia’s 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 yesterday. He called the issue “an absolute priority for me, an absolute priority for the government.”

(Corrects date of incident in second, fourth paragraphs.)
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