Canberra - The captain of a merchant ship bound for Singapore changed course for Australia for fear that desperate asylum seekers he had rescued in Indonesian waters would attack his crew, an official said on Thursday.
Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said the 67 would-be refugees could be deported to tent camps on the Pacific states of Nauru or Papua New Guinea under new laws due to passed by the Senate on Thursday aimed at deterring growing numbers of asylum seekers from attempting to make the dangerous journey to Australia by boat.
The asylum seekers were still near the main Indonesian island of Java in a crowded fishing boat headed for the Australian territory of Christmas Island, 400km to the south, when they made a distress call to Australian rescue authorities early on Monday morning, Clare said.
The Australian authorities alerted all merchant shipping in the area, and Norwegian car carrier MV Parsifal was the first to respond.
Having fulfilled his obligation under maritime law to rescue the asylum seekers, the captain ordered his crew to continue to Singapore, the ship's intended destination.
"When the asylum seekers on the boat found out about this, they became very aggressive and the master of the ship made the decision to turn the vessel around and head to Christmas Island," Clare told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.
Danger on the high seas
The captain, who has not been named, radioed the Australian Maritime Safety Authority to explain his decision.
"He made the point that he was concerned for his crew's safety and therefore decided to take the ship to Christmas Island," Clare said.
Clare said he did not have details of the behaviour of the asylum seekers, reported by The West Australian newspaper to be Middle Eastern men.
But he was concerned that a ship's crew could feel threatened after rescuing seafarers in distress.
"It shows you just how dangerous it can be out on the high seas when you've got desperate people doing dangerous things," Clare said.
The asylum seekers were delivered to the immigration detention centre on Christmas Island late on Tuesday, hours after the government warned that any new boat arrivals could be sent to Nauru, a tiny atoll, or an island off Papua New Guinea, Australia's nearest neighbour, to have their refugee claims assessed.
600 deaths in three years
The minor Greens party has condemned the plan as cruel.
Clare said military reconnaissance teams would fly to Papua New Guinea on Thursday and Nauru on Friday to plan the new detention camps. He expects the first asylum seekers to be sent to Nauru within a month, although an agreement has yet to be finalised with that country's government.
More than 7 600 asylum seekers — many from war-torn countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka — have reached Christmas Island in more than 100 boats so far this year.
A surge in boat arrivals and the deaths of more than 600 asylum seekers at sea in the past three years has prompted a tougher government stance.