CAMBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia's ruling party said Wednesday that it had turned back 28 boats to prevent asylum seekers reaching Australia during its three years in power and warned that such vigilance would not continue if the country's opposition wins next month's national election.
The conservative coalition government has warned that the boats would start coming from Indonesian ports in greater numbers if the center-left Labor Party wins the July 2 elections.
The latest boat carrying 21 Vietnamese was intercepted this month, Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton said. They were returned to Vietnam after their refugee claims were assessed and rejected at sea, he said. He declined to give details.
The government rarely gives details of its military-run operations against asylum-seeker boats at sea. Indonesia objects to boats carrying foreigners being towed by Australian warships back to Indonesian shores.
How to deal with asylum seekers is a major political issue in Australia, and Dutton said if opposition leader Bill Shorten were to win the election, his plan to give 30,000 asylum seekers already in Australia permanent refugee visas would only attract more boats.
The government has given them three-year temporary protection visas and threatens to send them back to their homelands when those visas expire. Dutton said changing that would give people smugglers hope that Australia was softening it policies designed to deter asylum seekers from the Middle East, Africa and Asia from attempting to reach Australia by boat.
"That sends a green light. It is basically Bill Shorten waiving a white flag to the people smugglers," Dutton told reporters.
Shorten has denied that dumping the temporary refugee visas would encourage more boats, and said the conservatives were irresponsible to suggest there would be more people smuggling if he won.
Shorten said a Labor government would maintain the same tough policies that have prevented any asylum seekers from reaching Australia by boat for two years in it was in power.
Like the government, Labor would turn back boats. If any asylum seekers reached Australia, they would be sent to Australia-run immigration camps on the Pacific island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea with a promise that they would never find a home in Australia, Shorten said.