AUTHORITIES are rushing to upgrade quarantine facilities at the remote Cocos Islands, confirming fears that people smugglers from Sri Lanka and southern India have chosen the location as a new frontier in the asylum seeker trade.
A jet-load of stretchers, washing machines, dryers, antiseptic and other supplies was flown out of Christmas Island early yesterday morning, bound for the Cocos Islands, almost 1000 kilometres across the Indian Ocean to the west.
A boat carrying 67 Sri Lankan Tamils arrived at the Cocos cluster of islands, also known as the Keelings, on Saturday. They were housed overnight in the only available accommodation, the Cocos and Keeling Social Club, before being flown by chartered jet back to Christmas Island this morning, where they were transported to the island's packed detention centre.
It was the fourth people smuggling boat transporting Tamils in less than a month to reach Cocos, which previously had been immune from the sea-borne traffic of asylum seekers.
However, the Cocos group is much closer to Sri Lanka and southern India, where hundreds of thousands of Tamils are in refugee camps, than Christmas Island. Christmas Island itself is more than 1500 kilometres west of the nearest point on the Australian mainland.
The latest arrival at the Cocos cluster has alarmed Border Protection authorities, because the route to the Cocos group adds many thousands of square kilometres to the already vast spread of ocean it must place under surveillance.
The tiny population of the Cocos Islands 600, spread over two outcrops, one inhabited mainly by Caucasians, the other by ethnic Malays is angry at losing access to its only social club every time a load of asylum seekers arrives.
The club, on the main Caucasian-inhabited island, known as West Island, is closed to its members while asylum seekers are housed there, and also for several days after they leave, because it must be quarantined and disinfected.
The new quarantine facility will be established at an old station used in the past to house imported animals, including elephants, requiring isolation before receiving quarantine clearance for transport to the mainland.
Sources say there is no intention of turning the quarantine camp into a new detention centre, and that all the asylum seekers will still be taken to Christmas Island for processing.
However, aviation fuel is in short supply on the island because of the increasing number of charter flights required to fly asylum seekers to the mainland to ease overcrowding at the detention centre. Charter flights to pick up asylum seekers are adding to the strain.
The island's acting administrator, Steve Clay, issued an official alert only this week about the diminishing stocks of aviation fuel available.
About 20 tonnes of fuel is shipped every few weeks in large containers aboard the MV Princess Mary, which plies between Perth and Singapore. It is scheduled to arrive at the island every four weeks, but locals say the visits regularly stretch to six weeks or more.
The ship is currently being directed to steam directly to Christmas Island rather than making a stop-off at Cocos.