Suspected asylum seeker boat intercept

5:04 pm on 20 November 2015

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has refused to confirm that a suspected asylum seeker boat has been intercepted just off Christmas Island.

If confirmed, it would be the first such boat to reach Australian waters since June 2014.

Several Christmas Island residents said they spotted a wooden boat, carrying about eight people, in Flying Fish Cove about 6am (midday NZT).

They said it was intercepted by the Royal Australian Navy a short time later and escorted to Smith Point, where the group was then offloaded onto another navy ship.

It is unclear where those on board were taken.

Mr Turnbull was asked about the eyewitness reports at a media event in Darwin, but refused to provide any further information.

"As you know, we don't comment on operational matters," he said. "I can't help you other than to say that we do not comment on operational matters."

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Christmas Island was a popular destination for asylum seekers until Australia began turning boats back in 2013. Photo: RNZ / John Campbell

A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton also refused to provide any details in relation to the reports.

Labor immigration spokesman Richard Marles called on the government to immediately provide confirmation if the navy had intercepted the boat.

The 350 km journey from the Indonesian island of Java to Chrismas Island was popular for asylum seekers until Australia began turning boats back under Operation Sovereign Borders in 2013.

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Christmas Island residents supplied photos showing a long, narrow green and white fishing boat dwarfed by an Australian Customs and Border Protection vessel, the ABC reported.

"I saw it being towed out to sea by RAN patrol boat, at 4 to 5 km distance around 6.45am Christmas Island time," Christmas Island Shire president Gordon Thomson said.

"I saw a photograph of an Indonesian fishing boat that shows the boat at Smith Point in the port of [Christmas Island] waters."

Malcolm Turnbull speaks during a news conference after winning the party leadership ballot on 14 September.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull refused to confirm whether a boat had been intercepted. Photo: Getty Images

Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young called for those on board to be taken to Christmas Island.

"If the government really does care about saving lives at sea, they wouldn't tow this boat away from Christmas Island, they would let it land safely," Ms Hanson-Young said in a statement on Twitter.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific Steve Ciobo was also unable to confirm whether it was an asylum seeker boat, but stressed the federal government's policies remained unchanged.

"Suffice to say that I think that Australians and, importantly those that are engaged in people smuggling, know the absolute resolute way Australia now deals with this matter," Mr Ciobo said.

"We will not tolerate those people that seek to come to Australia by boat, they will be processed offshore and they will not find a home here in Australia."

In a report published in August, the Australian Border Force said only one asylum seeker vessel had arrived in Australian waters since the start of Operation Sovereign Borders in December 2013.

The 157 people from that vessel spent a month on a customs ship before being transferred to the Curtin Detention Centre and then Nauru in mid-2014.


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