Kiwis Firm In Asylum Standoff

Kiwis firm in asylum standoff

Paul Maley
The Australian
May 29, 2009

NEW Zealand authorities warned a boatload of Sri Lankan asylum seekers stranded off the northern coast of Australia that their chances of gaining entry to New Zealand were no better than in Australia.

A Senate committee has been given details of an extraordinary standoff between Australian and New Zealand Customs officials and a boatload of 50 Sri Lankans stranded off Warrior Reef in the Torres Strait in April.

The details came as the secretary of the Immigration Department, Andrew Metcalfe, told The Australian the vast majority of unauthorised boat arrivals coming to Australia were being driven by so-called “push” factors, rather than changes to Australian policy.

In April, the group of 50 mostly Sinhalese asylum seekers, who had sailed directly from Sri Lanka, found themselves stranded off Australia's northern coast.

Their boat, which was located in international waters, remained idle for four days as Australian and New Zealand border protection authorities tried to persuade those on board to come to Australia rather than risk the trip to New Zealand — their stated destination. But for days the group held out, telling their would-be rescuers they preferred New Zealand.

Yesterday, First Assistant Secretary for Immigration, Arja Keski-Nummi, told the committee members of the group believed they had a better chance of gaining entry to New Zealand.

Ms Keski-Nummi said those on board the boat were shown weather charts indicating the treacherous conditions they could expect to face if they proceeded with their journey.

She said at one stage the asylum seekers asked to speak to New Zealand authorities, who also became involved in the negotiations.

“They had raised concerns about remaining in Australia because they (believed) Australia was very tough in terms of the treatment of asylum seekers and they heard New Zealand accepted refugees,” Ms Keski-Nummi said. Yesterday, a spokeswoman for New Zealand Prime Minister John Key confirmed those on the vessel were told they would fare no better in New Zealand than they would in Australia.

Yesterday, Mr Metcalfe told The Australian the present surge in unauthorised boat arrivals needed to be seen in the global context of swelling refugee numbers. “In my professional view, global events are going to be far more likely to cause people to move than perceptions of Australian domestic policy,” Mr Metcalfe said.

“Unauthorised travel to the West has been driven by people in need of protection and they go to the West because they're looking for a better life.”