23 October 2001

JOHN McNAMARA: Now to what decent people, including Opposition Leader Kim Beazley and our next guest Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, are calling a tragedy. The deaths of perhaps 350 people after their overcrowded fishing boat capsized in Indonesian waters, presumably they were bound for Australia, either Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef. What, or who caused this tragedy, people smuggling criminals, the asylum seekers themselves in their desperation, or can it as Mr Beazley suggested also point to a failure of Australian policy? Philip Ruddock, good afternoon.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: Afternoon John.

McNAMARA: Now, is it as Mr Beazley was suggesting today, can it point to a failure of Australian policy?

RUDDOCK: Well I think that's a very unfair and inappropriate conclusion to draw. And I mean, the fact is that Australian Government policy has been clearly directed over a long period of time at containing people smuggling. Mr Beazley himself was diminishing these matters a little while ago. He was saying that in relation to un, unlawful migration, that Australian was in effect a, in a legal migration heaven. Now, I mean, his Shadow Minister was saying that I was exaggerating and, and being alarmist in relation to the claims I was making that there was a need for urgent action to address the concerns domestically.

And we sought as long as four years ago to get improvements to our law to reduce the pull factor. And what you have to look at is why would these people wanting to get on boats, it's clearly unlawful. But, we, we were of course very concerned that our asylum law which enabled 80% of people who were claiming to be Afghan's to get claims up in Australia, and only 15% getting them up in Indonesia if considered by the United Nations, now this was the pull factor. It meant that people would rather risk a dangerous journey, to make their claims here because they thought they'd get better outcomes.

And that needed to be addressed, it was addressed in legislation that was eventually passed. But it could have been addressed earlier if the Opposition, and the Democrats and the Greens had, had passed the legislation earlier. Now I'm not suggesting that makes them in any way culpable, that would be the last thing that I would suggest. And the fact is that we could have addressed these matters earlier if we'd been given the support that we asked for.

McNAMARA: Nevertheless the matters have been addressed, early or late, the pull factor is still there though?

RUDDOCK: The pull factor will I think discourage people from coming but it's not going to operate immediately because what will happen, having addressed that pull factor, is that people will hear the outcomes are likely to be less positive. They will, they will take that into account in the decisions they make, and we're seeing that now with the return of a boat to Indonesia. It will undoubtedly, with the reporting of this tragedy have an impact on others. But inevitably it will be those people who are further appealed, who haven't paid their money, who aren't yet in the hands of the smugglers who will make those decisions.

So, those that have already paid money to smugglers, who have travelled half way around the world, they're going to think well, maybe they should just continue journeying you know, it may work out alright. I think those are the sorts of doubts that they would have in their mind. I mean, we've seen that with some of the recent boats where people now recognise that vessels have been returned and some of them think that they can push us to allow them to land at Christmas Island. They think that if that happens it may be, it may be the different outcome would be, would be possible but we're determined to ensure that that won't happen.

McNAMARA: The Refugee Council of Australia is asking today what will happen when a vessel sinks after being forced back towards Indonesia by Australian Armed Forces? Will then Australia be responsible for any tragedy?

RUDDOCK: Well I mean we go to quite extraordinary lengths when we're in touch with the vessels to ensure that they are in fact sea worthy, but you know, I mean the issue of, of these unsatisfactory vessels travelling in the open seas is always there. And people have put themselves on to these vessels, they could sink at any time. Often they sink well before they leave Indonesia, but we're not going to send people back on vessels that we would believe would sink.

What we have seen of course is that vessels have sunk where we think that sabotage has been involved, in other words where they've been deliberately sunk. Well, what we have seen is vessels have been, have been the subject of deliberate, deliberate action to disable them so that they can neither be steered or made mobile. And, and all of that is designed to put pressure on us to take people off the vessels that they're on and to bring them to Australia.

McNAMARA: Is that for instance, what you believe to be the case with that vessel currently off Christmas Island, that the people have been, well, decanted from, and your hoping that they can be put back on?

RUDDOCK: Well, I mean, I don't want to go too much into what is happening there at the moment because it's a, it's a live issue. But the fact is that the people who were transferred to, from Christmas Island to Papua New Guinea over the last two days were on a vessel that in fact had it's steering sabotaged. It was immobilised so that the engine would not work, and in the end sank and we believe it sank because the vessel had been hulled. It, it occurred so suddenly but it was highly unlikely that it was a failure of the pumps to work or something of that nature.

McNAMARA: Is it a sign though of the desperation of the people that they are, that they drive themselves to those ends?

RUDDOCK: Well, look, I mean John, this, this idea that we should have a desperation test to find out who is a refugee seems strange to me. You see, I mean, if, if resettlement of refugees who had a need for being accommodated because they're in an unsafe situation because their lives are at risk.

If resettlement was to be judged by having a desperation test you'd think the United Nations would have though of it years ago. But this was the best way to find out who is in the most desperate circumstance, you put them on a sea voyage on a vulnerable boat and see whether or not they survive, they must be desperate. I mean, when you put it in those terms it becomes I think, clear how ludicrous that is to determine whether or not somebody has a requirement for an asylum place.

There are lots of people flee and get to situations in which they are safe and secure. For most of these people there is never an argument that they are not safe and secure when they're say in Indonesia. There's never an argument that most of the people from Afghanistan are not safe and secure, most, when they're in, when they're in African, when they're in Pakistan. It is certainly an argument that they're unsafe if they were returned to their country of origin at certain times. But when they've reached another country where they are safe and secure, you have to ask the question do people need to be resettled in a third country just because the ultimate level of support might be better or more generous? And what we find is of course, one of the major factors involved is that people are seeking migration outcomes when they, when they get on these boats and come to Australia.

McNAMARA: Philip Ruddock, we've run out of time, we'll have to leave it there. Thank you very much for your time. The Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock.

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