Australian Broadcasting Corporation


Late night news & current affairs


Broadcast: 24/10/2001

Downer supports international meeting on asylum seekers

Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer welcomes the proposal put forward by his Indonesian counterpart for an international conference on asylum seekers. He says he will attend the conference if the Government wins next month's election.
Tony Jones
Reporter: Tony Jones

TONY JONES: And joining me now is the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer.

He's in our Adelaide studio.

Mr Downer, firstly, what do make of these reports that some of these asylum seekers at least were forced on board that leaky boat at gunpoint?

ALEXANDER DOWNER, FOREIGN MINISTER: I don't know anything more about it other than the report that Ginny Stein has sent through on the ABC so we haven't at this stage been able to verify those allegations.

We will be investigating those allegations and talking to the Indonesian authorities about them.

TONY JONES: If they are correct, does it suggest that there has been some sort of official policy here with police involved with people smugglers?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: No, I don't think so.

I don't think the Indonesian Government have any official policy of that kind at all and I think it's important to understand that.

Whether there are some people within the police force who may have accepted money to help the people smuggler or not, well, honestly, we just don't know.

TONY JONES: Nonetheless, it's going to be very hard to get to the bottom of this without a complete and open investigation.

The UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee] is now calling for a quick investigation.

Do you support that call?


I think it's important that the Indonesians look into the allegations that have been made.

I'm not prejudging the accuracy ever the, you know, of the allegations.

I just really don't know whether those allegations are true or not, whether they have any foundation.

But I think, given the gravity of the allegations that have been made, it would be appropriate for the Indonesian authorities to investigate them.

TONY JONES: Should there be an open inquiry, though?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, it's going to happen in Indonesia.

It's not going to be an inquiry conducted by us or the United Nations or any other country.

So they'll have an inquiry, no doubt, if they choose to have an inquiry, according to their own system.

TONY JONES: Now, do you have any news of these Afghan boat people the Indonesians appear to have detained in Kupang in West Timor?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, if I know, if they're the people who I think they are, then there were some people that came on a boat which you'll recall we towed back, the Warramunga towed back to Indonesian waters, or the edge of Indonesian waters.

That boat, subsequently, was picked up by the Indonesian police and those people were, in turn, taking to Kupang, but I don't know if these are exactly the same people you're talking about but I understand that that's what happened and, in that particular case, let me tell you, that I talk of, the Indonesian police were very cooperative and the Indonesian authorities more generally cooperative.

TONY JONES: Now, are we likely to see some sort of change now that this terrible tragedy has happened, at the same time that these Afghan asylum seekers have been detained?

We're hearing now that the Indonesian Foreign Minister is calling for a conference in Jakarta to try and deal with this matter, an international conference.

First of all, will we be attending, what do you know about it, what does it indicate?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, first of all, I certainly welcome the proposal put forward by the Foreign Minister for a conference.

We will certainly attend this conference if we win the election, because the conference will take place, I understand, some time next month or a bit after that.

I think it's a very good initiative.

It's something we've been encouraging the other countries in the region to do.

We've been speaking to a number of countries, not just Indonesia, about this idea so I'm very pleased that the Indonesians are proposing to host such a conference.

I think their position has gradually evolved on this issue.

You've got to remember that Indonesia's been through a good deal of political turmoil over the last couple of years.

When the new government came into power, Mr [John] Howard met with [Indonesian] President Megawati [Sukarnoputri] in Jakarta.

This issue of illegal migration was one of the issues on the agenda.

They discussed the issue then.

The ministerial visit I made with my two colleagues, the ministers for defence and immigration, helped to take the process forward.

As time has gone on, there's been a gradual evolution of Indonesian cooperation but, you know, it's all taking time and there's still a good deal more work to do.

But I think this is a good sign, that they are now proposing to host this conference and we would very happily participate in it.

TONY JONES: Now assuming that you were still Foreign Minister, still in government at the time this conference happen, what sort of commitments would you expect from Indonesia at a meeting such as this, because it would be a way of smoothing the ground for some sort of attempts to stop these people smuggling operations?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: We'd want to build on what we're already doing, not just by the way with Indonesia but with a number of other countries in the region, which are used as transit points.

There'd be a number of issues for us that would be important.

First of all, for all of the countries of the region, tightening up their own immigration procedures, their border control procedures.

There has been some work done already in a number of countries including Indonesia to improve that process but, obviously, there's still more work to be done.

I think, on a regional level, we need to build on the cooperation that already exists between, for example, our Australian Federal Police, POLRI in Indonesia, other police forces around the region.

I think we can look at ways of our customs services cooperating much more effectively with each other and I think we can also look at this question which the Indonesians have alluded to again today and we talked about with them a few weeks ago and that is the development of the detention centres in Indonesia.

They already have some detention centres.

They've told us that they would agree to expand those detention centres.

Today, I've heard they're talking about possibly building some new detention centres.

Again, this is something that can be done on a multilateral cooperative basis with countries like us giving Indonesia some help in that process.

TONY JONES: We're running out of time but a final quick question, though.

Do you think that Australia should offer resettlement places to those people who were already found to be refugees among the survivors of this terrible tragedy?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, I think Mr Ruddock's made the point that, where there are family links here in Australia and the people are genuine refugees then, in those circumstances, something can be done.

But he's also made the point that we've got to understand what we're dealing with here.

We're dealing with a people trafficking operation, one of many people trafficking operations, and we don't want to do anything that would encourage the continuation of this grizzly trade of people trafficking.

Our core policy is to try and close down on people trafficking.

But certainly for us to continue with a refugee program obviously.


Back to