ASIO Rushed Oceanic Viking Asylum Checks

ASIO rushed Oceanic Viking asylum checks

Paul Maley
From: The Australian
February 09, 2010 12:00AM

ASIO fast-tracked security checks on 78 refugees being held in Indonesia following the Oceanic Viking standoff, allowing the Rudd government to meet the terms of a special deal to resettle them within four to 12 weeks.

The security agency's director-general, David Irvine, revealed ASIO had been asked to prioritise the cases of the 78 Sri Lankans being held at the Tanjung Pinang detention centre after their month-long standoff on the Oceanic Viking, a Customs vessel.

The revelations came as Mr Irvine told an estimates committee hearing in Canberra yesterday that his agency had handed down a total of 13 negative security assessments in the past 18 months.

The assessments included five handed to Tamil asylum-seekers currently on Christmas Island. The remaining eight are believed to have been issued to people not currently in Australia.

Mr Irvine's evidence fed a day of torrid political debate about Australia's immigration policies, with the Coalition giving its clearest sign yet it would seek to restore some version of the Howard government's Pacific Solution if elected later this year.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said yesterday an Abbott-led government would process boatpeople in foreign countries or in territory excised from Australia's migration zone, rather than bring them to the Australian mainland.

Mr Morrison's comments came as Immigration Minister Chris Evans conceded the flow of boats was putting pressure on facilities at Christmas Island, which now hold 1741 unauthorised boat arrivals, pushing up against the facility's current capacity of “around” 1900. “We're obviously feeling a bit of pressure there,” Senator Evans said.

Senator Evans said Christmas Island would be expanded to hold up to 2300 people “within a couple of weeks”.

Appearing before a Senate estimates committee, Mr Irvine gave fresh detail about ASIO's role in managing the Viking case. He said four of the asylum-seekers were found to be a threat to Australia within four weeks of their leaving the boat.

The rapid processing enabled the Rudd government to meet the terms of a deal struck with the 78, whereby successful refugees would be resettled in a third country within four to 12 weeks. Mr Irvine said ASIO was asked to prioritise the security checks for the 78 boatpeople rescued by the Oceanic Viking in October. “It was very important that we do our security assessments in order to enable the decisions be made.”

He told the committee: “It was made clear to us by the department of immigration that there needed to be certain priorities. We did our best to meet them.”

Mr Irvine's comments challenge assurances by the Rudd government that there was nothing extraordinary about the processing arrangements for the 78.

He said ASIO issued three adverse security assessments on December 11 and a fourth on December 18.. One of the recipients of those assessments was a Tamil woman rescued with her two children. A fifth negative assessment was issued to the woman's husband on December 23. All five are currently being held on Christmas Island.

The government has ruled out repatriating the five, at least four of whom have been declared refugees by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

It has also ruled out issuing visas to any of the five, saying the preference was to settle them in a third country.

The bulk of the 78 Sri Lankans left the Oceanic Viking around November 18 following a promise they would be resettled to a third country within four to 12 weeks.

Government officials in Indonesia and Canada have described the rapid resettlement deal as highly unusual.

ASIO's rapid assessment time for the four Tamils – less than one month – was well short of the 90-day target the agency normally allows itself.

Mr Morrison said the swift security assessments were clear evidence of a special deal.

“There are Tamils sitting on Christmas Island who have been waiting seven months and the only thing holding them up is their security assessment.”