Alarmed Australian officials have been warned that thousands more may be on their way over the next few weeks, before the monsoon season sets in.
The latest boat to arrive, a cramped converted fishing vessel carrying more than 70 men, women and children, was the fourth such boat to land in Darwin in the past week. Together the boats contained 315 asylum seekers. All had set out from the southern port of Beihai to make the perilous three-week, 2,800-mile voyage across the South China Sea.
When immigration officials boarded the latest vessel a few miles off Darwin, they found among the passengers an 80-year-old woman suffering from exposure. Most other passengers appeared to be well.
The wave of departures from Beihai, near China's border with Vietnam, appears to have been sparked by the clearing for urban redevelopment of many areas of southern China to which ethnic Chinese fled from Vietnam in the late Seventies. Marion Le, president of the Indo-Chinese Refugee Association of Australia, said: "It's a human tragedy caused by the Chinese destroying the housing of Vietnamese Chinese. Vietnam refuses to take them back, so they're taking to boats to get away from China altogether. Australia could face up to 20,000 more arrivals."
Chinese entrepreneurs are believed to be selling boat space to such people, enticing them to head for the "lucky country" where jobs and welfare are supposedly waiting.
The past week's arrivals brought to 930 the number of boat people from Asia, mostly Chinese, who have landed in Australia this year. It is more than twice the number in the previous two years combined.
Nick Bolkus, the Australian Minister for Immigration, said yesterday that Canberra wanted to send a "strong message" to the Chinese: "These people have no right to impose themselves on Australian shores. We're saying to the Chinese officials that there is a responsibility to ensure that those who are profiting from this racket don't continue to do so."
One-third of the boat people who have arrived in the past three years have been granted refugee residence, while the rest have been deported or are still in detention.