Sri Lankan boat, people smugglers, boat arrivals, no advantage principle, Malaysia Arrangement
Friday, 19 October 2012
Interview with Stuart Bocking, 2UE Mornings
Stuart Bocking: Minister good morning.
Chris Bowen: Good morning, mate, how are you?
Bocking: I'm well, thank you for your time.
Bocking: When you try and piece all of this together, have we got a clearer idea as to what has happened here?
Bowen: No, details are still very sketchy, and I've seen lots of things reported as fact over the last 24 hours and some of them very contradictory. And the only thing that's very clear at the moment is that details are sketchy. I've spoken to the Sri Lankan High Commissioner yesterday and we communicated again last night. He made it clear to me that these allegations, that there's a full investigation going underway; that he wasn't in a position to confirm very much at all; that there's been, you know, various speculation as to whether they were asylum seekers, crew; whether they were heading to Australia or not.
Obviously, I indicated to him that we would fully cooperate and provide any assistance we could, and when he's in a position to give me an update further he'll give me one. So really -
Bocking: That's where we're at, because obviously we had two crewmen who were saying initially that the trawler had been attacked by about 40 suspected illegal immigrants carrying swords, they arrived in four small boats, overpowered the crew, then an officer saying, 'Look, we think the skipper of the trawler was involved in the hijacking, along with three other crewmen'. So effectively, they were part of a people smuggling operation but creating this idea that somehow they had been the subject of the attack in the hope to clear their own name.
Bowen: Yeah, exactly, and as you can imagine, all the various claims that are going around and it's obviously very concerning. It's a very serious case, not to dismiss the seriousness of it all, just to point out that we don't really have many facts at this point. Sri Lanka itself is saying that, and that they're continuing to investigate and they'll let us know when they know more.
Bocking: What it highlights is, I mean, the numbers just keep on coming. I know what Sri Lankan authorities are saying, they've detained more than 1000 people who've tried to leave for Australia illegally this year. Do you have a clearer understanding, Minister, as to why Sri Lanka's attitude would be along those lines and yet Indonesia takes a different approach to all of this?
Bowen: Well, we're dealing with very different things. Obviously, I think the key difference is we're talking about Sri Lankans leaving Sri Lanka.
Bowen: Not Indonesians leaving Indonesia. So it's a much more, if you like, domestic problem for Sri Lanka.
Bocking: And do you think that's the big thing, the fact that they are Sri Lankan nationals, whereas those who are leaving Indonesia might be from Afghanistan or Syria or somewhere else? Do you think that's the big difference?
Bowen: Hardly ever, if ever, Indonesian. I think that's one of the big differences. I think the other big difference, frankly, is that Sri Lanka is frankly a much smaller place than Indonesia; it's an island. They have, you know, obviously a navy which patrols quite extensively around Sri Lanka, whereas Indonesia is one of the world's largest archipelagoes. There's thousands of islands, thousands of places that people can leave from.
So we do work with the Indonesians, just as Sri Lanka. We work with the Indonesians on interception, on disrupting vessels, etcetera. But where you've got thousands of islands, people are really quite sophisticated organised criminals, you know, moving around from island to island; you're really only dealing with the symptoms of the problem. You can disrupt vessels - and we do, we stop vessels leaving - but that's just dealing with the symptoms. While ever the cause is there, you're just really going to be up against the battle.
Bocking: Tell me, in a hypothetical situation, if there were cases where asylum seekers had played up on these boats, had threatened people, intimidated them, produced knives, things of that nature, and they ultimately arrived in Australia, given all of that, do we have the capacity to simply say, 'We will see you later, we're not even processing your claim?'
Bowen: Well, what we do, and again, obviously we will assess the situation -
Bocking: That's right, I'm saying hypothetically, just on a generality, yeah.
Bowen: Hypothetically, we need to take each case, if there's allegations made we do need to be careful; I take them very, very seriously. We do have character powers, which means that we can use those, but there are certain tests that need to be applied. Obviously, there might be some instances where extradition comes into place, where there's criminal charges against somebody in a different country. That all needs to be assessed and worked through.
So there are powers there and we do look very seriously at those powers. But every case obviously needs to be looked at very closely.
Bocking: Are you surprised that since you reintroduced offshore processing that the number of boats arriving in Australia or attempting to arrive in Australia hasn't fallen away in the way we might have hoped they would? Are you disappointed it seemingly hasn't been as successful this time around?
Bowen: Well, we're certainly in a battle here with the people smugglers, and certainly they're out there spinning that, 'Look, you probably won't be sent to Nauru or if you are it'll only be a little while and then you'll be brought back to Australia'. And they're sort of using the experience of last time. Of course, this is a different model, but they're saying, 'Last time Nauru was in place people ended up in Australia and you won't be there very long'.
Now, we've got to communicate very clearly that that's just not right. This is a very clearly different approach: we've got the no advantage' test in place and if your listeners have heard of that before, what we're saying is, 'Look, you won't get an advantage by getting on the boat; we'll just treat you the same as every other person who arrives or who is seeking entry into Australia from a camp, and we'll make you wait for as long as you would have had to wait if you're in a camp'.
Now, I've seen the Liberal Party out on this this morning -
Bocking: Yes, because they're saying you'd end up on Nauru for at least five years, is one of the arguments they're running now.
Bowen: Well, I'm actually glad that they've endorsed the no advantage principle, because it is an important change.
I saw Mr Abbott this morning say, 'Look, I'm not going to get into specific timeframes, on a specific case-by-case basis'. But I myself have made the point that we're talking about years here, that it is a tough message, that people will find that some people will criticise us and have criticised it for being too tough.
But the no advantage principle is an important one because otherwise you're saying people who come by boat should be advantaged over all those people who are in camps, and I don't agree with that. So it is an important principle.
You've got to be careful that you don't give a 'how-to' guide to people smugglers, but the principle of people waiting for a substantial period of time on Nauru is a tough one, but it's an appropriate one.
Bocking: Tell me this, I wonder whether in part, Labor's been a victim of its own success in attempts that, over a long period of time in relation to the so-called 'Pacific Solution', you did quite a job of dismantling a number of elements of the [Howard] Government's argument on this and the fact that, in many cases, many, many people ended up either in Australia and New Zealand; and I wonder, in light of that, the fact that some of the mystery -the mystique -surrounding the policy has now been torn asunder and blown apart.
Is that now creating problems where they're a little more sophisticated in how these things were that, by virtue of the criticism that's come from Labor over a long period of time, they're better versed in what might happen when they get here, offshore processing or not?
Bowen: No, well the people smugglers were very much alive to the fact that people who went to Nauru last time ended up in Australia -
Bocking: So why did the boats stop then Minister, and they're not now?
Bowen: Well, what we're doing -as I say, boats continued to arrive for quite a while after Nauru was opened last time. We are in this battle, it is an important thing that we continue to communicate in the region and in source countries that we are very serious. We've also got to show the lived experience: keep transferring people to Nauru -we've done another transfer overnight and there's more people now on Nauru -and also we have to implement all the Panel recommendations.
I've always -there's a bit of irony here, as you know, of people jumping up and down and say, 'Look, Nauru and Manus Island aren't working', when I've pointed out consistently now for a long time that we need a lot more than Nauru and Manus Island to make this work. We need to increase our refugee intake and we need to also implement the Malaysia agreement. I mean, that's something which people smugglers can't argue with: if you go to Malaysia, you will not come to Australia -
Bocking: I was going to ask you about that. I mean, is that very much back on the drawing board? Because contrary to some of the arguments, I mean, the Houston Report didn't wipe out Malaysia altogether, but it did say the policy did require more work. Have you been doing more work on the Malaysian-side of things?
Bowen: Yeah, they've made suggestions about how we can better codify some of those protections. But look, the key issue that I'm worried about is that if we brought it to the Parliament would it get through? That's the -we could do all the work we like, now unfortunately the Liberals say they wouldn't vote for it because it's, if you like, too tough because Malaysia's not a signatory to the Refugee Convention. I don't buy that argument. Indonesia's not a signatory either but they want to turn boats around there, Sri Lanka is not a signatory, so I don't think that argument holds any water whatsoever.
It is a tough package, it does bring those people, again, who have been patiently waiting in Malaysia, wanting the chance of a better life in Canada, Australia or the United States, this gives them a better go; but says to those who come by boat, 'Look, we are taking you to Malaysia, this is quite different to Nauru or Manus Island, it's a completely different package: on Nauru or Manus Island you are going to be processed and you might eventually reach Australia' With Malaysia you're going to wait with those other 100 000 asylum seekers in Malaysia and only when your referral comes up from the UNHCR will other countries consider you.
So it is quite a tough message. I think what this experience over the last few weeks is showing us is that we do need those sorts of messages.
Bocking: So tell me this, because obviously what you've now reinstituted is a key part of the Coalition's policy, along with the reintroduction of temporary protection visas, this notion of turning back the boats -given that a key plank of it hasn't worked so far, would you expect there would be a difference under a Coalition Government, the boats would stop if suddenly we had TPVs, we were turning back the boats? Would you consider either of those things if you couldn't get Malaysia?
Bowen: Well let's deal with each of them. Temporary protection visas, I'm not sure how temporary protection visas fit in now that the Liberal Party has endorsed the no advantage principle, because are they saying they'd still give temporary protection visas after five or six years? I don't see how that's a deterrent.
If you're prepared to wait five or six years or more on Nauru, then having a temporary visa for a couple of years, but living in Australia with work rights and welfare rights which are under a TPV; I don't see how that's in any way a disincentive, and it wasn't last time. I mean, after TPVs were introduced, the number of people arriving in Australia by boat went up. It is easy to forget that, you know, this all wasn't done in one go, they tried many things -
Bowen: - Before they actually, before boats actually started to slow, temporary protection visas were years before boats started to -
Bocking: So what about turning back the boats?
Bowen: Turning back the boats, the principle of turning back the boats is you say to people, 'Look, we're going to take you back to where you started the journey so you get nothing out of it'. That's a principle I understand, that's the principle behind Malaysia, because most people actually start their boat journeys in Malaysia.
So the difference here is not one of saying we should take people back to where they started their journey; I'd rather take them by plane and do it safely and not risk the lives of naval personnel. They want to do it on the high seas and turn the boats around in a very dangerous fashion.
And the other point is this: Indonesia has said very clearly they won't agree to take people back, but Malaysia has. Well there you go, that's the difference.
Bocking: Do you think that's why Tony Abbott didn't raise it with the Indonesian President the other day -
Bowen: I do -
Bocking: - because he didn't want to hear the answer?
Bowen: I do, I think the answer would have been too embarrassing, and I think, you know, I think that's disappointing because if it's an important policy here, it's an important policy in Indonesia, and if you say here that it's -it's now one of the essential differences, now that we've got -
Bocking: Yeah, of course, offshore processing, I mean, the two key differences are -
Bowen: The difference here is really much narrower now.
Bocking: Look, I appreciate your time this morning. Obviously we'll try and clarify what has gone on off Sri Lanka and I do appreciate your time.
Bowen: Thanks, nice to talk to you.
Bocking: Thank you very much. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen with the latest on all of that.
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Last update: Friday, 19 October 2012 at 13:57 AEST