Immigrant boat captured off Australia
By CNN's Kirsty Alfredson
CHRISTMAS ISLAND, Australia -- Australian Federal Police have intercepted a boat carrying 231 suspected illegal immigrants from the Middle East.
The 197 men, 30 children and nine women are being held on the island, 350 kilometers (218 miles) south of Indonesia, before being transferred to the mainland.
A spokeswoman for Acting Immigration Minister Chris Ellison told CNN police spotted the Indonesian wooden vessel six nautical miles off Christmas Island Thursday afternoon and then escorted the vessel to the island.
Five Indonesian crew members have been charged with people smuggling offences, which can carry a penalty of up to 20 years imprisonment.
A total of 4,169 illegal immigrants have been intercepted by Australian authorities on 51 boats since July 2000. Last year there were a total of 4,434 people on 76 boats.
A surge of illegal immigrants
Australia's immigration minister is currently visiting Southeast Asia in a bid to stop a flood of illegal immigrants.
The Minister for Immigration Philip Ruddock's four-day trip to Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam comes amid a surge in the number of people entering Australia illegally using organized criminal gangs.
Australia's department of immigration says Bangkok is part of an established smuggling route used by people from the Middle East and North Africa.
Ruddock had discussions in Jakarta and Bangkok with government ministers and officials about how to deal with people smugglers and illegal immigrants and is seeking greater cooperative efforts.
People who arrive in Australia without authority are legally required to be held in detention until their situation is resolved. That policy has attracted sharp criticism from human rights groups.
Where the latest group will be detained in Australia has not yet been determined.
There have been major riots in detention centers -- the most recent at the Woomera center in South Australia.
Seven Middle Eastern men escaped under a fence after digging their way out of the remote detention center last Saturday.
Two escapees caught by South Australian police will appear in court on Friday charged with escaping lawful custody. Three escapees remain at large.
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