Australian refugee groups demand answers on asylum seeker boat

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australian refugee groups on Tuesday demanded the government provide answers about a boatload of asylum seekers thought to be from Vietnam seen off the country's west coast.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, whose hardline policies have stemmed the flow of asylum seekers making the risky journey to Australia on boats - including by turning them around - refused to discuss the vessel.

"We do not comment on operational matters on the water," he told reporters in Canberra when asked whether his government was negotiating with Vietnam to return the boat.

"We do not discuss things in ways which would give comfort to the peoplesmugglers. This has been an iron law of this government and I won't change it today."

But the Refugee Council of Australia said people deserved to know what was happening to those onboard the boat which the Australian Broadcasting Corporation said had been sighted around 150 kilometres offshore from the town of Dampier.

If confirmed, it would be the first approach by an asylum seekers boat to Australia's west coast in almost two years.

"The immigration minister needs to release information about how many people are on the boat and where they have come from, including the numbers of children, babies and pregnant women," the council's chief executive Paul Power said.

"Shrouding the matter in secrecy by claiming this is an 'on water matter' is unacceptable. We don't know how long these people have been at sea, how many people are aboard nor where they have departed from."

The Refugee Action Coalition urged Canberra to bring the boat ashore and assess the claims of those onboard.

"We know from past actions, the government will likely attempt to return the asylum-seekers to Vietnam," said spokesman Ian Rintoul.

In May, Australia said it had prevented 18 boats carrying asylum-seekers from entering the country since Abbott came to power in September 2013, including a load of 46 people returned to Vietnam.

Other boats have been turned back to Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

"Some asylum seekers have previously been held captive on customs boats for a month before finally being returned," Rintoul claimed.

"In this kind of turnback situation, the asylum-seekers are being directly handed to those they are fleeing from."

Abbott defended his policies, under which any asylum-seekers who do arrive on unauthorised boats are denied resettlement in the country and sent instead to camps at Nauru or Papua New Guinea in the Pacific.

"What I am going to do is reiterate our absolute determination to ensure that people will not come to this country illegally by boat," he said.

Canberra has said its policies are necessary to stop asylum seekers entering Australia by boat after thousands arrived under the previous government and hundreds drowned en route.

In June, the government said it had been more than 300 days since a people-smuggling boat had successfully made it to Australia.