SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia has intercepted a boat of Vietnamese asylum-seekers, officials said on Wednesday (June 22), as the government accused people-smugglers of using the upcoming election to drum up new business.
Rhetoric around Canberra's controversial immigration policy has ramped up ahead of July 2 polls, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has denounced a Labor opposition pledge to allow illegal migrants already in Australia to stay permanently.
The Vietnamese boat was discovered north of Australia this month, with the 21 men, women and children on board processed at sea and then flown home, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said.
"They claimed that they were wanting protection. It was found that they weren't owed protection and they were returned back to Vietnam," he said.
Under Canberra's tough measures, asylum-seekers trying to reach Australia by boat are either sent back to where they departed or to remote Pacific island camps, where living conditions have been criticised.
While Labor backs the policy of turning back illegal boat arrivals, it has said it would permanently settle the bulk of the 30,000 boat people who came ashore under the previous Labor governments of Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, most of whom are still waiting to be processed.
"This will send an absolutely unequivocal signal to the people smugglers that under a Labor government, anyone who manages to get to Australia on a boat will be able to stay here permanently," Mr Turnbull told reporters.
"The people-smugglers are starting to market again and we know... they are marketing that there will be, or could be, a change of government in Australia and the way the opportunities to smuggle people to Australia will be open again."
Since the start of its "Operation Sovereign Borders" in September 2013, the government has managed to halt the flood of boat arrivals, and drownings, that characterised previous Labor administrations.
Mr Turnbull said since the conservatives came to power, 28 boats carrying 734 people have been turned back with no successful arrival in almost 700 days.