Border policy 'caused deaths' says Labor
Jewel Topsfield, Canberra
October 17, 2006
(Zainab Ihsan, 12, survived the SIEV-X. She lists names of those who didn't. Photo: AP)
THE drowning of 353 asylum seekers was in part caused by laws that gave genuine refugees only temporary visas, Opposition immigration spokesman Tony Burke told mourners of the disaster yesterday.
The laws were introduced by the Howard Government to deter unauthorised boat arrivals, and were supported by Labor.
The recognition that they unintentionally contributed to the loss of lives is a key reason for the push within the ALP to abolish temporary protection visas.
Mr Burke said the overwhelming majority of children on the SIEV-X, which sank in the Java Sea on October 19, 2001, had fathers who had been granted temporary protection in Australia. Under the policy, temporary protection visa holders are unable to sponsor their families or visit overseas.
“The reason (the women and children) went to a people smuggler and found themselves on SIEV-X was that dad wasn't able to be reunited with them,” an emotional Mr Burke said in an extraordinary address to founders of the SIEV X memorial project, including survivor Faris Kadhem.
“On a temporary visa he was not allowed to leave to see them. We ended up with a situation of people giving their life savings to evil operators to then put their lives at risk and in this case many did drown.”
The Age yesterday reported that the Labor Party was set to abandon its controversial policy of giving boat people who were found to be genuine refugees only temporary protection, with their cases reassessed after two years. Mr Burke said it was not open to him to announce a change of Labor policy until after it had been decided at the ALP's national conference next April.
But he said he wanted to see Labor move away from its current position on temporary protection visas, towards policies “aimed towards something like this never happening again”.
“It's difficult to get past the concept of (the deaths of) 146 children, 142 women and 65 men, all with names, all with hopes, all with aspirations, all sharing the common dream they hoped one day to be Australians,” Mr Burke said.
Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said Mr Burke's plan was a policy backflip that would put lives at risk.
“Temporary protection visas are a key plank of border security measures which have dramatically slowed the flow of unauthorised boat arrivals to Australia,” Senator Vanstone said.
“Scrapping TPVs would send a clear message to people smugglers and their potential clients that they should risk their lives on the treacherous seas north of Australia to reach our shores.”
Labor's policy on asylum seekers since the 2001 election has been the subject of bitter internal dissent. Opposition Leader Kim Beazley was widely criticised for supporting the Howard Government's decision to refuse the Tampa permission to enter Australian waters to unload its cargo of rescued asylum seekers.
The decision split the party, with Carmen Lawrence resigning from the front bench in protest.
Critics also claim the uncertainty in the temporary protection system exacerbates the mental health problems of asylum seekers and argue that many places, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, remain dangerous even after several years.
“There was a motivation among a mix five years ago,” Mr Burke said, “which was to try to create a situation where people were not putting their lives at risk at sea, and I don't think in the emotion of today that we should forget that is, if done properly, a valid motive for people to have. After five years one can now look a bit more coldly, a bit more analytically, as to which policies that went through in that period did do something to save lives and which policies failed.”
A spokesman for Mr Beazley said he recognised the conditions surrounding temporary protection visas had changed and he would consider Mr Burke's proposals.
Meanwhile, former defence chief Peter Cosgrove yesterday conceded the “children overboard” scandal was not the Australian Defence Force's finest hour at more senior levels.
“It is a fundamental principle for commanders to establish and pass on the truth,” he said of the erroneous report, highlighted by Howard Government ministers during the 2001 election campaign, that boat people had threatened children's safety as a ploy to secure passage to Australia.