Third boat arrival detected in a week, but no one taken to Nauru

Australia’s offshore processing centre in Nauru (Photo: MSF)

Two boatloads of asylum seekers intercepted off the Australian coast are being kept at sea rather than being sent immediately for offshore processing in Nauru, prompting questions about whether the government is trying to send them home.

Four Vietnamese asylum seekers intercepted by the Australian Border Force off the coast of Broome late last week are still being kept at sea, as are 33 people of unknown nationality who arrived at Christmas Island after their vessel was damaged.

Separately, five Rwandans were found by authorities on Saibai Island in the Torres Strait last week and have been taken to Papua New Guinea.

Government sources with knowledge of the Border Force operation confirmed neither the Vietnamese nationals nor the group of 33 people had been sent to the Nauru detention facility, nor sent home, and that they were being processed on Border Force vessels.

Border Force declined to comment on the three boats.

The interceptions will increase scrutiny on how much is spent on border security in Tuesday’s federal budget. The opposition has been highly critical of Labor’s handling of border security since the arrival of three boatloads of asylum seekers in Western Australia late last year.

Coalition home affairs spokesman James Paterson described interceptions so close to Australian shores as “another shocking failure of border protection under the Albanese Labor government”.

“This is just the latest in a cascading set of failures under the current government that have left Australians less safe, less secure, and less certain,” Paterson said, pointing to a reduction in patrol flying hours and maritime patrol days, as well as Labor’s abolition of the Coalition’s temporary protection visa scheme.

Coalition immigration spokesman Dan Tehan said the government needed to explain what was happening. “There are three boats that have arrived last week and no one knows what they are doing with these people.”

The government has previously intercepted asylum seekers on water and returned them to their country of departure.

In August 2022, for example, 46 asylum seekers were returned to Sri Lanka on the Border Force vessel Ocean Shield.

About 64 people are currently on Nauru, with fewer than five assessed to be refugees, according to Home Affairs data. The Coalition has raised concerns over whether parts of the government’s deportation bill will encourage people to arrive illegally by boat. The concerns relate to a provision that bans entire nationalities from travelling to Australia if their country refuses to accept the involuntary return of its citizens.