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Shipwrecked asylum seekers now detained on Christmas island

Christmas Island (AAP)

December 6, 2013

The federal government has confirmed a group of suspected asylum seekers who've been living undetected on Christmas Island since arriving by boat earlier this week are now in detention.

The federal government has confirmed a group of suspected asylum seekers who've been living undetected on Christmas Island since arriving by boat earlier this week are now in detention.

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison says the entire group is now accounted for after some were initially thought to have evaded detection.

Refugee advocates and the Greens say the incident highlights how the Coalition's strategy to stop asylum seekers arriving by boat is not working.

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The 27 suspected asylum seekers are believed to be Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Australian authorities began the search yesterday after members of the group were spotted walking up a rugged road from Dolly Beach on Christmas Island's south-east coast.

Christmas Island locals say the group survived on crabs and coconuts after their boat arrived on the island on Monday.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has thanked those involved in the rescue process but has highlighted the risks involved in taking a boat journey.

"And these 27 people who are now safe should count themselves extremely fortunate that they did not suffer a far worse fate. Anyone getting on a boat should not think that there is an Australian safety net waiting for them. If they get on one of these boats, they put their lives in the hands of people smugglers and far too often we know how that can end in the most fatal consequences. I'm sure that all Australians will be very pleased that there has been no loss of life on this occasion and all those 27 persons are now safe and accounted for."

The Australian Greens are using the incident to pile pressure on the Coalition over its strategy for trying to stop asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat - known as Operation Sovereign Borders.

The Greens' immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young says the government's approach is a "sham."

Senator Hanson-Young says the fact that more information initially came from locals than from the government is an embarrassment.

"It really just shows what a sham this entire operation is. It is nothing more than a media strategy. There is no, there is obviously no proper patrolling. There is very little difference under Scott Morrison's leadership under what's going on here. It is more about shutting down the media and hoping that the story will go away."

Senator Hanson-Young's remarks have been echoed by the Refugee Action Coalition's Ian Rintoul.

Mr Rintoul says the incident demonstrates that the government's policies on asylum seekers are futile and he's called for more government transparency on boat arrivals. 

Mr Rintoul says the discovery of asylum seekers hiding on Christmas Island highlights the flaws in the Coalition's military-style approach to boat arrivals.

"I think it punches a huge hole in the whole Operation Sovereign Borders and the military operation that the government has said that it's mounting on the borders. We don't need a military operation what we need is a humanitarian operation. They couldn't find this group of Rohingya asylum seekers and I think that says a lot about what the government is doing."

But the immigration minister has defended the Coalition's efforts to stop boat arrivals, pointing to an 80 per cent reduction on arrivals since they've taken over from Labor.

Scott Morrison insists the new government's approach has proven to be more successful than the previous Labor government's attempts.

"I would say that under Operation Sovereign Borders the number of illegal arrivals by boat has fallen by over 80 per cent. Under the previous government, over 50,000 people turned up on over 800 boats at a cost blowout of over $11.6 billion and a loss of more than 1,100 lives. That's what failure looks like and the previous government knows all about that failure."

The President of the Burmese Rohingya Community in Australia, Mohammad Anwar, says there has been an increase in the number Rohingya Muslims seeking asylum in Australia.

The Rohingya minority are subject to ethnic violence in Myanmar and are described by the United Nations as one of the world's most persecuted groups.

Mr Anwar says the international community including Australia should pressure the Burmese government to make a greater effort to protect minority groups.

He says the Rohingya have no option but to seek asylum in countries such as Australia because they are not recognised by many other nations.

"They are in a limbo situation in the middle at the moment. Most of the Rohingyas are stuck outside Burma and they don't have a home to go to back so what they can do, I mean the best position for them is currently where they can at least have some legal status - at the moment, currently in Malaysia or Indonesia they don't have legal status - they've been there for more than 20 years. They're still illegal there. Although the government introduced a lot of policies on deterring from arriving here and sending them to Papua New Guinea or Nauru but they still think that this is the best choice for them."

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