Boatpeople Boost ‘Not Gov’t’s Fault

Boatpeople boost 'not govt's fault'

Sydney Morning Herald
April 14, 2009

The federal government insists its policies are not to blame for the recent spike in illegal boat arrivals.

Six days after the latest unauthorised vessel arrived on Christmas Island, it's blaming “push factors” from countries including Afghanistan and Iraq for the increase.

“I don't think that changes in Australian government policy, as important as they have been, from the point of view of compassionate treatment of refugees have had any particular effect one way or the other …” Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus told reporters on Tuesday.

“The truth is that the so-called push factors, events in other places, are far more important than Australian government policy in determining numbers of people who attempt to arrive here without authorisation.”

The federal opposition has seized on the fact that 12 boats, carrying 379 asylum seekers, have reached Australia's northern waters in the past 12 months.

It claims the arrivals are proof that border security in northern waters is full of holes, and that Labor's immigration detention policies have given people smugglers the green light.

Mr Debus said the government was determined to protect the Australian mainland from illegal arrivals.

“Our surveillance is guided by intelligence … and the essential point is that we protect the mainland, our own mainland,” he said.

“Don't forget that Christmas Island is still more than 1,000km away from Australia.”

Mr Debus made the comments in Perth during a joint press conference with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Immigration Minister Chris Evans.

The three ministers are on their way to Indonesia to attend Wednesday's Bali Process summit, where dozens of countries will discuss ways to fight people smuggling.

Senator Evans said the group that arrived on Christmas Island on Wednesday were undergoing health, security and identity checks. It was not unreasonable to assume they would seek asylum, he said.

“They seem to be mainly from the Middle East, and may well be a group of Iraqis and Afghanis but I can't confirm that until the interviews have been completed,” he said.

Angry residents last week claimed the vessel, carrying 38 people, had sailed past an Australian navy vessel before tying up at the Christmas Island wharf and waiting for Customs officials to take them in for processing.

Christmas Island resident Steve Watson said the arrivals had been “free to step off and walk around the island” something that carried serious disease risks for the community.

But Senator Evans said such views were not representative of the whole community.

“I've been to Christmas Island and met with community leaders in recent times and they understand the processes, they understand why they are using the detention facilities on Christmas Island, and to be frank many of them appreciate it is the largest economic activity, except for the mine, occurring on the island,” he said.

“Certainly the islanders have concerns which we seek to address… but it's also the case that many of them recognise there's increased activity on the island as a result of the detention.”

Mr Debus said there would be no formal inquiry into last week's arrival, but an investigation was underway that would determine the exact circumstances.

Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop said the Rudd government had given a green light to people smugglers and put out the welcome mat for illegal migrants.

She said Mr Smith had conceded he was not concerned about the arrival of 38 people in a wooden boat at Christmas Island last week.

“(This) sends a clear message to people smugglers that the Rudd government has downgraded surveillance of our northern waters and it is now much easier to transport illegal migrants to Australia,” she said in a statement.