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Page last updated at 09:49 GMT, Friday, 17 April 2009 10:49 UK

Australia PM furious at smugglers

PM Kevin Rudd, 17th April 2009
Mr Rudd is facing criticism for softening Australia's immigration policy

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has described people-smugglers as "scum" who should "rot in hell".

His comments come a day after an explosion aboard a boat carrying Afghan asylum seekers killed at least three people and injured dozens more.

The cause of the blast remains unknown, but some MPs have suggested it may have been deliberate, to avoid deportation.

The incident has reignited debate about asylum policy. The opposition believes Mr Rudd's approach is too soft.

Liberal party leader Malcolm Turnbull said the government stance - less hardline than that of the previous administration - provided a greater incentive to smugglers, encouraging people to put their lives at risk by setting out to sea.

But the government has blamed the recent surge in asylum seekers on the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, along with the global economic downturn.

Horrific burns

The asylum-seekers who survived the explosion have now been flown to hospitals in Australia.

The death toll is likely to rise, because two people are still missing at the explosion site and five others are on life support.

Some of the burns are so severe that doctors in Perth have compared them to those they treated in the aftermath of the Bali bombings.

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Dr Len Notaras from the Royal Darwin Hospital describes the injuries

Speaking on Friday, Mr Rudd issued a withering verdict on those who traffic people across borders.

"People smugglers are the vilest form of human life because they trade on the tragedy of others," he said.

"We've seen this lowest form of human life at work in what we saw on the high seas yesterday."

File photo of asylum seekers on the island of Nauru
Asylum-seekers were held on Nauru under Mr Howard's Pacific Solution

Mr Rudd refused to speculate on the cause of Thursday's explosion, citing ongoing investigations.

But the premier of Western Australia said the boat was doused with fuel before the blast, suggesting it could have been an attempt to prevent deportation.

When the explosion happened, the boat was being escorted to an offshore island by the Australian navy, so the asylum seekers' claims could be processed.

Rise in claims

This is the sixth boat carrying asylum-seekers to enter Australian waters this year. The number of people arriving in this way already totals more than 250 this year - a significant increase from the total of 179 refugees intercepted during the whole of 2008.

Australia's opposition has linked this upsurge with a relaxation of the country's immigration policy since Kevin Rudd became prime minister in late 2007.

The Rudd government scrapped the widely-criticised policy of his predecessor, John Howard, under which asylum-seekers and their children were detained for years in special centres in Nauru or Papua New Guinea, a plan labelled the "Pacific Solution".

Asylum-seekers now arriving by boat are held on Christmas Island, but their claims must be expedited, with six-monthly case reviews by an ombudsman now government policy.

Mr Rudd defended his policy on Friday, saying: "We are dedicating more resources to combat people smuggling than any other government in Australian history."



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