Boat crisis forces visa-raid halt
EXCLUSIVE: Paul Maley and Paige Taylor
From: The Australian
April 16, 2010 12:00AM
IMMIGRATION Department officials have been ordered to back off all non-essential visa checking, such as raids on brothels and illegal fruit pickers, as mainland detention centres are at risk of overflowing because of the constant transfer of asylum-seekers from Christmas Island. The Australian has learnt that Immigration Department compliance officers were told late last week to detain people only where necessary, because of the space pressure inside detention centres.
The instructions, which were issued verbally, not in writing, are understood to have been handed down last Thursday and Friday.
It is believed compliance officers were told to ease off all non-essential work and to detain people at airports only when absolutely necessary. Yesterday, a spokesman for the department conceded there was “some pressure” on detention centres onshore.
“Compliance officers have been asked to consider the impact of current detention capacity when planning their field operations, including looking at alternatives to detention,” the spokesman said.
Pressure on mainland detention centres stems largely from a refusal by the government to authorise a spill to the mainland.
The comments came as authorities on Christmas Island yesterday unloaded a total of 135 people at Flying Fish Cove in nine barge trips – passengers from three boats intercepted last week.
The Australian understands that most had travelled from Afghanistan but that they had been intercepted before the government announced a suspension of all new Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum claims.
The latest arrivals came as the Danish government began investigating reports in Australia that claimed it had suspended refugee applications. Denmark is concerned that its position on asylum-seekers was misrepresented in Fairfax newspapers after statements by Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Immigration Minister Chris Evans last Friday said that Australia was not the only country to suspend Sri Lankan refugee applications.
And yesterday, the head of Indonesia's people-smuggling taskforce at the National Police, Commander Hermawan, was quoted in local media, warning that as many as 5000 illegal Middle Eastern immigrants were preparing to cross from Malaysia to Indonesia, where they would be stranded by the Australian government's policy change.
As the latest asylum-seekers landed on Christmas Island, the Coalition moved to toughen its stance on border protection by ruling out family reunion rights for boatpeople. Less than one week after unilaterally committing a Coalition government to a lower migrant intake, the opposition's immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, has again provoked the ire of party moderates, this time by barring boatpeople from access to the family reunion scheme.
Mr Morrison yesterday told The Australian that a Coalition proposal to reintroduce controversial temporary protection visas would prohibit visa-holders from bringing family members to Australia. “We won't be offering family reunion under the TPVs,” Mr Morrison said.
“Then you'd be effectively offering the same rights and entitlements as permanent visas, and this is not a permanent visa.”
The proposal has prompted outrage from refugee groups, who say TPVs forced asylum-seekers to bring their families on the boats with them, sometimes at the cost of their lives. Refugee Council president John Gibson yesterday condemned the proposal as reckless and inhumane.
“If you want to talk about causation, there is absolutely no doubt in the world about that factor, because the number of women and children increased four-fold,” Mr Gibson said.
Mr Morrison's proposal was also attacked by Liberal moderates Petro Georgiou and Russell Broadbent.
Mr Georgiou, perhaps the most outspoken Liberal critic of Howard-era refugee policies, described TPVs as “pernicious instruments”.
“History shows that a number of women and children on SIEV X were drowned seeking to be reunited with people in Australia who had been found to be refugees and who were on temporary protection visas,” Mr Georgiou said.
“Under the Howard government, almost all people on TPVs were converted to permanent protection visas.”
Last night there were 2212 boat people on Christmas Island, which was originally designed to hold just 400.
The overcrowding has forced the Immigration Department to put mattresses on the floor of small rooms that held just one bed a year ago but now sleep up to five men. An education facility inside the centre has been converted to a dormitory, and people sleep where they used to take Australian studies classes.
“It's tight, but we're managing,” a spokesman for the department said yesterday.
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