Australia 'intercepts asylum boat off Christmas Island'

A view of the Flying Fish Cove February 28, 2012 on Christmas Island, Australia Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Christmas Island locals said they saw a boat off Flying Fish Cove

The Australian Navy has intercepted a suspected asylum seeker boat near Christmas Island, reports say.

A wooden vessel was seen about 200m (656ft) offshore early on Friday, eyewitnesses told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Various reports said the boat was escorted to Smith Point and its occupants transferred onto an Australian Navy ship.

The Immigration Department would not comment on the incident.

Under controversial policies, Australia sends all intercepted asylum seekers to Christmas Island, as well as Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

The last documented asylum seeker boat arrival to Australia was in 2014, when a group of 157 Tamil asylum seekers was intercepted north of Christmas Island.

Australia asylum: Why is it controversial?

So why does Australia have tough asylum policies?

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Asylum seekers have been sent back in lifeboats

Domestically, asylum is a hot political issue. Polls have shown that a significant number of Australians approve of taking a tougher stance.

The two biggest rival political groupings adopted tough policies ahead of the September 2013 polls. The Liberal-National coalition, which won, had campaigned in part on a "stop the boats" platform.

The government says the journey the asylum seekers make is dangerous and controlled by criminal gangs, and they have a duty to stop it.

However, critics say opposition to asylum is often racially motivated and is damaging Australia's reputation.

Australia granted close to 13,800 refugee visas between 2013 and 2014. It granted about 20,000 visas between 2012 and 2013.

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