Sri Lankan returns, people smugglers, boat arrivals, Malaysia Arrangement
Monday, 17 December 2012
Interview with John Stanley, 2UE Mornings
John Stanley: Now there are figures published this morning on the front page of the Telegraph suggesting that in December only 43 people arrived by boat from Sri Lanka, compared to 1228 in November and even more, 1240 in October. That would suggest that a lot of these people have got the message they're not going to get here, particularly if they're – it would seem – Singhalese rather than Tamils. But the man that can tell us more is the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, good morning.
Chris Bowen: Good morning to you, John.
Stanley: Are those figures right?
Bowen: Largely. Largely that's right, John. We've seen a very big reduction in the number of people arriving from Sri Lanka in recent weeks – it's been 13 days or so since we had a boat from Sri Lanka. And those earlier figures you read out are right, we had a big surge of people coming from Sri Lanka. Hence, we took the decision you referred to, to turn people around very swiftly where we've made an assessment that they're economic refugees – turn them around, put them on a plane and get them back to Sri Lanka very swiftly. That sends a very powerful message when people turn up at the village a short time later and say, 'Look, it didn't work, I'm back here', and other people think well what's the point of doing that, I'll waste my money, I'll get into debt and I won't even be better off, I'll be back here where I started.
Obviously, this is an ongoing challenge. People smugglers will keep finding new ways to keep lying to people in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, but this policy that we've implement has been pretty important.
Stanley: Now when we talk about people who are Singhalese, as opposed to Tamil, that makes it more clear-cut, does it?
Bowen: Well look, without going into details and specifics, clearly there's two major groups in Sri Lanka – Singhalese and Tamils. Traditionally, most of the arrivals in Australia have been Tamils, that's not necessarily the case with some of the more recent arrivals. But whether the people are Singhalese or Tamil, where there is a very clear indication that this is economic migration, not people with whom our international obligations are exercised, then we've taken the decision to return them. Six hundred and eighty-two people have been returned involuntarily in the last little while and another hundred or so – a few more than a hundred – have returned voluntarily, and this is historically a very large number of people who we've returned in a short period of time.
Stanley: It's difficult. Do you sometimes at night think to yourself, 'I hope I haven't returned someone who was genuinely fleeing persecution?'
Bowen: Yeah look, obviously we're always very careful about that. And you referred to this as a 'virtual tow-back', and in many ways it is, but there's two key differences. Firstly, we don't risk the lives of people out on the high seas; don't risk the lives of Sri Lankans and don't risk the lives of our Australian sailors. And secondly, we do an assessment that is an assessment which is done quickly in Australia, but we do an assessment.
So if you turn a boat around to Sri Lanka then you're clearly not doing that sort of assessment, but if do it in Australia on Christmas Island and quickly assess people to be economic migrants and return them, I think that is a very effective way of getting rid of that economic migration.
Stanley: Okay, that's the Sri Lankans. I see today you've said there's a second Afghan man, he's been returned involuntarily under the returns agreement between Australia and Afghanistan. That's two. He arrived by plane in 2010, so he wasn't someone who came by boat anyway, and he's been flown back yesterday, is that right?
Bowen: That's right, John. Again, every country we have different arrangements with. With Afghanistan, I signed a returns agreement a while ago now saying that we could return people to Afghanistan. That is something that couldn't happen before. All through the Howard Government, for example, nobody was involuntarily returned to Afghanistan.
Now, this is early days. We have returned two people to Afghanistan who have been through the process and found not to be refugees. Again, if you come to Australia for economic migration, that's not what our refugee program is for. I understand people want a better life. Australia's the best country in the world; I understand, better than anybody I understand how many people want to come here and do that. But we need to have a very clear and strict policy in place that if you're not a refugee you'll be returned.
Stanley: How many are still coming, though, coming from places where it is problematic, places like Iran and Iraq and Afghanistan, where there are a lot of people with a very genuine fear of persecution?
Bowen: Yeah, these are the vast majority of our cases: Iran, Afghanistan –
Stanley: How many are coming now, at the moment? What would you have got, say, in the last month or so?
Bowen: This month we've had over 700. Last month, it was much higher than that. I think some of the policies we've seen working have been put in place. The majority of people, as you say John, are from countries like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Now, the challenge here is of course that these are all countries with big problems: economic problems, violence problems.
But it's not enough to come from a country which is in a difficult situation to be a refugee. You need to show that you're personally being persecuted in that home country or that you're at significant risk of that persecution. So it's a high test. I mean, obviously Afghanistan has real challenges, real problems, and there's lots of violence going on in Afghanistan. But that doesn't mean that you automatically, just because you're from Afghanistan, you are a refugee. That's why we have those processes in place.
Stanley: There'll be people saying, well, if you can do this with Sri Lankans, why can't you just fly back anyone who arrives by boat, say from Indonesia, back to Indonesia?
Bowen: Well, what we could do is fly them to Malaysia. The Government signed that agreement with Malaysia. Of course, the Liberal Party and the Greens combined to stop that going through the Parliament. So that's one big thing we could do, we could fly them straight back to Malaysia, which is where the majority of people start their boat journey. They actually don't start their boat journey in Indonesia; they finish it in Australia from Indonesia.
Stanley: But even then, you only had 800 slotted in.
Bowen: Sure, but if you put that in place that would send another very big disincentive to get on the boat. You'd say, well, why would you waste your money only to end up back in Malaysia?
You've got to do this with countries you have an agreement with, John, where you've negotiated. We do it with Sri Lanka, we're doing it in smaller numbers with Afghanistan, we could do it with Malaysia. You can't do it where you don't have an agreement. Now, Indonesia's made it very clear that they're not going to accept turn-backs of boats, whether it be from a Labor Government or a Liberal Government. I know it's Liberal policy, but Indonesia has said it's not on. So you've got to work with countries in your region. You can do it successfully, as we've done with Sri Lanka, as we've done with Malaysia, as we're doing with Afghanistan.
Stanley: Would you do it if you think it would work? If you thought turning boats back would deter people from getting on boats, would you do it?
Bowen: Well I've previously said that, yes, turning boats back would be a deterrent, but where you've got very clear advice from the Navy that it would be unsafe for sailors, and you can't get an agreement from a country like Indonesia to do it, well you're better off doing what we're doing, which is, as you've described it, a virtual turn-back – put them on a plane, do it safely and do it appropriately, with an agreement with another country.
Stanley: But again, as you say, but that would be, you know, you should have an agreement then – if you had an agreement with Indonesia, along the lines you had with Malaysia, would you consider that?
Bowen: Well if you could put them on an aeroplane and do it safely, then sure. But we negotiated with Malaysia – a very good friend in our region – who has 100 000 asylum seekers on their books in Malaysia. We said, 'Look, this is a problem for our whole region, let's work together on it'.
We do other things with Indonesia, John, just to be clear. I mean, we have all sorts of cooperation with Indonesia on these matters and we do disrupt boats leaving Indonesia and we do that together with them. We don't talk much about it but that just happens quietly in terms of that cooperation with Indonesia.
In terms of the formal agreements, we've got one with Malaysia, we have arrangements in place with Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, we implement them, but you've got to work with the countries, you can't just beat your chest and say, 'I'm going to turn back boats to Indonesia', and when Indonesia says, 'Well, we're not taking them', you've got a very big problem on your hands.
Stanley: The final question, the measure of success of what you're doing is stopping boats coming. Do you think there'll be fewer of them next year?
Bowen: Well certainly that's what we're always working towards John, it's unsafe and it's unfair, and we're always working towards that. Again, what we're doing is having some effect. It's still early days, but it's having some effect. We'll keep doing that in terms of Sri Lanka, we'll keep implementing all the other policies that it takes, including Nauru and Manus Island which are now up-and-running. Many people say they're too tough, but you really need to make tough decisions if you're going to deal with this people smuggling trade.
Stanley: Do you like doing this job?
Bowen: It's the job I've got John, it's not the easiest job in the world, I get many people telling me that, but look, it's a great opportunity and a privilege to serve Federal Cabinet in whatever capacity you have, and the immigration portfolio is one which doesn't often get good news but there's lots of good things that happen behind the scenes.
Stanley: You get a lot of advice when you walk through the streets?
Bowen: Undoubtedly, but lots of people just recognise too that it's a job where it's very hard to please people. Many people would say you're too hard, many people would say you're too soft, that's just being Immigration Minister.
Stanley: Depending on the suburb you're in, you're either copping it from one side or the other, aren't you?
Bowen: Yes, that's right, but you get used to that John, it's fine. It's an enormous privilege to serve as Australia's Immigration Minister.
Stanley: Alright if I don't talk to you before Christmas, you have a good Christmas, we'll talk to you next year. Thank you.
Bowen: Thank you and all the best to the family, John.
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Last update: Monday, 17 December 2012 at 14:37 AEST