Canberra Fears New Surge In Illegal Immigration

Canberra fears new surge in illegal immigrants

Paul Maley and Michael Owen
Article from: The Australian
April 15, 2009

AUSTRALIA is urging Indonesia to do more to crack down on people-smugglers as the Rudd Government braces for a new wave of more sophisticated illegal boat arrivals.

Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus yesterday attributed a spike in unauthorised arrivals in recent months to deteriorating security in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan and warned Australians to prepare for more boats in coming weeks.

His warning came as immigration law specialist Simon Jeans said men in their 20s were posing as teenage boys to avoid immigration detention after they landed unlawfully in the country.

Twelve boatloads of asylum seekers have arrived in Australian waters since September, prompting the Opposition to accuse the Government of giving the green light to people-smugglers.

The Rudd Government abandoned John Howard's Pacific Solution in February last year as it sought to soften Australia's treatment of refugees.

Opposition immigration spokeswoman Sharman Stone said yesterday the Government must stop “squeezing” border security funding.

“In the last 10 days, we have seen the appalling results of this resource squeeze and lack of focus of Australia's border security,” Dr Stone said.

Mr Debus, backed by Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Immigration Minister Chris Evans, is attending a two-day summit in Bali this week. The three ministers will call on Indonesian officials to make a greater effort to intercept asylum seekers before they make the dangerous voyage to Australia.

“You must expect that there will be, within a relatively short amount of time, attempts to reach a country of preferred destination like Australia,” Mr Debus said yesterday.

Senator Evans said lobbying efforts would focus on convincing Indonesia to improve its domestic legal arrangements.

“They currently don't have, in our view, enough capacity to prosecute people-smugglers in Indonesia,” Senator Evans said.

He described as first-rate the level of co-operation Australia had received from Indonesia in trying to break up people-smuggling rings.

The ministers' comments came less than a week after a boat carrying 38 Middle Eastern asylum seekers slipped past Australian border protection authorities and docked at Christmas Island.

Mr Debus yesterday defended the breach, saying there was more surveillance now than when the Howard government was in power. “Our surveillance is informed by intelligence,” hesaid.

“You can't expect that every boat and every kilometre of the sea will be covered.” He emphasised that despite the upsurge, the number of people coming to Australia remained modest by global standards.

Senator Evans said people-smugglers were changing tactics, often using sophisticated positioning systems to chart their course to Australia.

“One of the things we've found is some of these boats being of better quality and having larger numbers than those that arrived last year, particularly one of the departures from Sri Lanka last year (which) had quite sophisticated positioning systems,” the Immigration Minister said.

Mr Jeans, a Sydney-based immigration law specialist with 20 years' experience, yesterday told The Australian he encountered young men claiming to be 10 years younger than they were to get an easier ride through immigration.

“Many young adults, aged between 18 and 24, arrive unlawfully claiming to be “unaccompanied minors',” Mr Jeans said. “They know they will receive a much easier time at an interview by immigration officials if they claim to be 14 or 15 years old and (coming from countries) with nutrient levels lower than Australia they can appear much younger than their real age.” The scam is the latest to be adopted by illegal people-smugglers and exploits government policy against putting children into immigration detention.

Asylum-seekers destroy identity papers before entering the pipeline with the “snakeheads” who run the people smuggling trade.

Frustrated Immigration officials say they are forced to give the young men, who routinely claim to be travelling alone, the benefit of the doubt if they are picked up in Australia.

Sources say it is a catch-22 for officials. While aware of the scam, they must “err on the side of caution” and accept at face value the age provided to avoid locking up children.

Formerly, X-rays were used to check the bone density of those making what were considered to be questionable claims about their age, but this practice has since ceased.

Pamela Curr, of the Asylum-Seeker Resource Centre, expressed scepticism at the claims of age fraud.

“What's the advantage? It doesn't make any difference to the assessment of their claim,” Ms Curr said.

Additional reporting: Debbie Guest