AUTHORITIES on Christmas Island were yesterday preparing to process a boatload of 73 suspected asylum seekers - the 20th arrival since September - fuelling tensions among local residents over food shortages exacerbated by the island's swelling population. The boat was intercepted off Ashmore Island at 7am yesterday, as new figures were released showing the number of skilled overseas workers coming to Australia on temporary 457 visas had plunged to its lowest level in four years.
Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus did not give details of where the passengers and four crew were from. They are due on Christmas Island by the end of the week.
The flood of asylum seekers has swollen the island's population by almost 60 per cent forcing the Department of Immigration to employ a community liaison officer to ease ongoing tensions on the tiny territory. Immigration officials were confronted for more than two hours at a community meeting last week by about 150 angry residents demanding to know how the Rudd Government intended to ease pressure on the resources of the small island, whose population of 1200 regularly endures supply shortages as a result of late shipments from Perth.
There are currently 464 detainees on Christmas Island and 226 immigration workers, contractors and service providers. The presence of the fly-in, fly-out workforce - many of whom have a daily allowance of about $80 for food on top of their wage - has led to recriminations over scarce and expensive fruit at the local store. Fresh food flown in from Perth is many times more expensive than in mainland stores - one man claimed last week to have paid $21 for three capsicums.
Some residents have grown resentful that the 29 asylum seekers living in community detention on the island are able to buy fruit on store credit provided by the department. The department moved quickly to squash rumours that asylum seekers were living on unlimited credit. It issued detailed information showing a family of four asylum seekers on Christmas Island would receive $766 in store credit each fortnight and $300 cash. [Over $500 per week for free!]
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