Book Renews Debate on Attempts to Stop Refugee Boats
10 March 2003
CANBERRA, Mar 10 (IPS) - A newly-released book that says Australian Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock asked in 2001 about stopping and sabotaging boats carrying asylum seekers to the country has rekindled a controversy about Australia's policy toward such arrivals.
According to the book 'Dark Victory' released Monday by two leading investigative journalists, Ruddock asked officials at a meeting at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in 2001 if boats carrying asylum seekers to Australia could be sabotaged.
At the June 2001 meeting in Indonesia, where Ruddock also asked why pirates did not attack boats carrying refugees who often carried jewellery and cash with them.
Ruddock's meeting with the government's 'People Smuggling Group' - comprising Australian immigration officials, police officers and foreign affairs officials - was recounted to investigative journalists Marian Wilkinson and David Marr, authors of the book.
When Ruddock persisted in asking about the possibility of pirates attacking the boats, he was cut off by Australian federal police officer Leigh Dixon, Marr and Wilkinson write in their book.
Following this and other meetings, rumours of Ruddock's extraordinary interest in preventing boats reaching Australia spread amongst embassy staff, the book relates.
But a spokesman for Ruddock said that the questions about pirates were in the context of 'public comment at the time' about pirate attacks on shipping in Indonesian waters.
According to Marr and Wilkinson, officials also referred to talk that Ruddock raised the issue of sabotage at a meeting. 'Essentially the minister put it over jokingly, 'well could we interfere with the boats?' . No minister I know, in a conference room with that particular group of people, puts anything like that with humour,' an official present at the meeting recounted to the authors.
According to the official, Dixon challenged Ruddock and flagged legal and ethical concerns about the suggestion. 'Ruddock laughed it off, and said it was just a concept in the air,' the official told Marr and Wilkinson. Initially, Ruddock told the authors he had 'no formal recollection of any of those discussions which I am prepared to discuss'.
Contacted later with more details about what he allegedly said at meetings, Ruddock stood his ground. 'Briefings that I receive as minister are confidential and involve quite frequently matters that should not be revealed by me for a whole range of reasons including public safety, international relations and national security,' Ruddock wrote in November 2002.
According to a spokesman for Ruddock, the people attending the meetings in Jakarta were not directly under his control, so he had no power to direct them to do anything.
Ruddock, he insisted, would also not suggest activities that were against the law. Asked why Ruddock's written response to Marr and Wilkinson did not dispute the allegation that the issue of sabotaging boats had been raised, the spokesman declined to comment further: 'I've said what I've said.''
Sabotaging boats carrying asylum seekers to Australia was a tactic employed in the 1980s, when Malaysian authorities would direct asylum seekers to keep sailing if their boat was seaworthy.
To frustrate the Malaysian policy, Australian immigration officials would sabotage and sink boats while they were in port. 'How did it sink? Well, we knew how it'd sunk because the boys had pulled the plug out or bored a hole in it,' one official openly recounted in a social history report published in 1989.
In mid-2001, Australian Prime Minister John Howard's prospects of winning a third term in office appeared bleak. In August 2001 that all changed when Howard dispatched Special Air Services troops to prevent 430 asylum seekers - rescued from a sinking fishing boat by the Norwegian container ship MV Tampa - from landing on Christmas Island.
A standoff ensued for six days, during which Howard unsuccessfully attempted to direct the Tampa's captain to take the asylum seekers back to Indonesia. Eventually Howard negotiated what he dubbed 'the Pacific Solution', involving the relocation of those aboard the Tampa to New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
While Howard's policy drew widespread international condemnation, it ensured his re-election.
Marr argues that Howard's success in concealing what was really occurring was in part reflects a failure of the media.
With the opposition Labor Party eventually endorsing Howard's policies, the press gallery were patchy in their follow-through on the issue. 'That is a very difficult thing for the press to do, in effect for the press to become the opposition when the opposition has chosen not to oppose,' he says. 'The lesson for the press is that there are times when this has to happen particularly in this strange age that we live of consensus politics,' Marr adds.
The book also reveals that the Australian government sanctioned a covert disruption operation aimed at people smugglers by the overseas intelligence agency, Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS). At a Senate inquiry into Australian government operations to prevent asylum seekers landing on Australian shores, the ASIS operation was not disclosed.
The revelations in the book have prompted renewed calls for a judicial inquiry into the shadowy 'people smuggling disruption' programme initiated by the Australian government.
'We have the Human Rights Watch report from New York last December, the Senate calls for an inquiry and now the new evidence in this book means that there really has to be a thorough judicial inquiry,' says Howard Glenn, national director of A Just Australia group.
Former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin backs a judicial inquiry. The book, he believes, 'substantially strengthens the evidentiary platform on which I raised questions about possible involvement of Australian government agencies in people [smuggling] disruption activities such as sabotage'.