Kevin Rudd shuts refugee door
Matthew Franklin and Paige Taylor
From: The Australian
April 10, 2010 12:00AM
KEVIN Rudd has frozen asylum applications from Afghans and Sri Lankans after receiving advice that people-smugglers were preparing to launch a new wave of vessels for northern Australia.
Sources confirmed yesterday that the decision, announced yesterday, came partly in response to new intelligence that people-smugglers were forming “new ventures” overseas expected to boost the boat traffic.
While the government presented the move as a well-considered response to improving security circumstances in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, the opposition said it was proof the government's previous approach had encouraged people-smugglers.
It also accused the government of making the change so it could put the refugee issue into “suspended animation” rather than debate it during the forthcoming federal election campaign.
The government also faced attack from the Left, with refugee activists rejecting the new approach as “a freeze on fairness”.
The government acknowledged its decision could create tension among detainees at Christmas Island, as a team of Australian Federal Police flew to the island yesterday with riot gear to bolster security arrangements.
An AFP spokesman said the officers went immediately to a meeting with senior officials from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.
The detainees sat quietly as a departmental official explained the government's new position.
It is understood many spent the day contacting family and friends in Malaysia and Indonesia who had hoped to board asylum boats soon.
Tensions have been rising at the centre, particularly among long-term detainees. About 4.30am yesterday, a Tamil asylum-seeker who arrived last year tried to hang himself inside the Immigration Detention Centre's green compound using a bedsheet and a security camera fixture.
The Weekend Australian has been told a fellow detainee stumbled across the suicide attempt while walking to a communal phone and alerted a guard, who cut the man down.
More than 100 asylum-seeker boats have arrived in Australian waters since the Rudd government took power.
Sources said intelligence suggested that in light of the increased traffic, it was likely that up to six asylum-seeker boats were headed for Australia, with another six being prepared for transit. But they cautioned that the intelligence varied in its reliability.
Immigration Minister Chris Evans said yesterday he did not expect the policy change to have an immediate effect on boat traffic.
The arrivals have fuelled opposition charges that Labor's dismantling of the Howard government's Pacific Solution regime has boosted people-smuggling.
Yesterday's announcement – the first major policy Labor has revealed since Tony Abbott began his nine-day Pollie Pedal bike ride from Melbourne to Sydney – came a day after the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Indonesia, Manuel Jordao, warned that people-smuggling was “out of control”.
Last night, there were 2161 detainees on Christmas Island, including 67 people and three crew rescued from the sea late on Thursday or early yesterday.
A pregnant woman and a man who suffered a suspected heart attack were among the first brought to the jetty, along with several children aged under five.
Also yesterday, 50 passengers and four crew from a boat intercepted near Ashmore islands last Sunday were brought ashore.
Soon after news of the rescue emerged, Senator Evans said that, effective immediately, new applications for asylum from Sri Lankans would be frozen for three months, and for Afghans for six months. In the interim, the government would review changes in the political situations in the two nations to determine whether some of the applicants should be sent home.
“The combined effect of this suspension and the changing circumstances in these two countries mean that it is likely that, in the future, more asylum claims from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan will be refused,” Senator Evans said.
He said his department was already accepting fewer asylum-seekers from the two nations than in the past because of changing civil circumstances, with Sri Lanka in transition after years of internal strife and Afghanistan providing new constitutional and legal protection for its citizens after the collapse of the Taliban.
“It's sending a very clear message that people-smugglers cannot guarantee people a visa,” Senator Evans said.
The change makes it almost certain the government will have to ship some asylum-seekers to its Northern Immigration Detention Centre in Darwin, with the Christmas Island detention facility already over its 2040-person capacity.
The Opposition Leader seized on the policy shift as vindication of the opposition's criticism.
“This is an admission by the government that it was always pull factors – not push factors – that was causing the flow of boats,” he said in Wangaratta, Victoria. “I've got to say this is no solution; it is just an election fix.”
He speculated that the announcement was timed to affect the government's standing in the fortnightly Newspoll, to be published next week in The Australian based on interviews conducted this weekend.
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said that while the government had accepted that its previous approach was flawed, it had admitted that the changed system would not stop the boats, which was the true measure of success in refugee policy.
The Prime Minister, campaigning in Bundaberg, Queensland, dismissed the criticism. “The government's view is simple: if someone's claim for asylum is not legitimate, they'll be sent home,” Mr Rudd said.
“This suspension has been made as a result of the changing circumstances in those two countries.”
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Last boatload arrives as PM shuts door The Australian, 2 days ago
Rudd bows to pressure on boatpeople The Australian, 2 days ago
Asylum deal will encourage others: UN The Australian, 24 Mar 2010
UN reveals huge spike in asylum seekers Adelaide Now, 23 Mar 2010
Rudd backtracks on processing of boatpeople Adelaide Now, 16 Mar 2010