The human face of people smuggling

The World Today Archive - Wednesday, 24 October, 2001
Reporter: Rebecca Carmody

ELEANOR HALL: Well, for the first time in the heated political debate about asylum seekers in this country, Australians have been able to put human faces to the statistics on the tragic toll of people smuggling. On the front pages of our newspapers this morning are heart rending photographs of some of the men, women and children who survived the shipwreck off Indonesia in which more than 350 others died, many of them close relatives of the survivors.

And adding to the tragedy, according to the United Nations, is the news that at least 30 of those on the doomed boat had clearly become desperate, despite already being officially declared refugees. The UN says those found to be refugees in Indonesia can still wait years before being accepted permanently by a third country.

Well today, Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock has agreed to accept 40 recognised refugees from the camps in Indonesia, but he's warned the intake may not include survivors of last week's shipwreck because he says to do so could encourage others to embark on similar journeys. Rebecca Carmody reports.

REBECCA CARMODY: Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf is even using Australian policy to justify his decision not to let any more Afghan refugees into his country.

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF: Hundreds of thousands of refugees want to cross over into Pakistan. And our dilemma is that we already have about 2.5 million refugees here in Pakistan, and you can compare this when you think of Australia not accepting even 200 refugees.

JOHN HOWARD: A few hundred is not going to make a difference when you're dealing with 2.5 million.

REBECCA CARMODY: The Prime Minister wasn't the only one talking numbers today. In the wake of the deaths, the Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, revealed that Australian would accept 40 of Indonesia's recognised refugees. This comes after the United Nations claimed that about 30 of those who perished had already been classified as refugees. Some had apparently been waiting for resettlement for up to two years, but ultimately they gave up.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: I mean the point I've made on a number of occasions now is Indonesia, for most of the people who travel there, is not an insecure or an unsafe place where people are going to be persecuted. What people are looking for is to be a refugee in a country of choice, rather than security and safety and sanctuary from persecution.

REBECCA CARMODY: Democrats Immigration spokesman Andrew Bartlett says the fact that there were genuine refugees among the dead makes a mockery of the Government's use of the term 'queue jumpers'.

ANDREW BARTLETT: Well, what that demonstrates categorically, from the Democrats perspective, is that the so-called queue that refugees are meant to stay in doesn't work. Nobody that's actually been through the process, been assessed, would dare - would even contemplate risking their life in such a serious way unless there was still no serious hope - genuine hope for them.

REBECCA CARMODY: Why can't they, though, as the Immigration Minister argues, stay in Indonesia where it is safe?

ANDREW BARTLETT: Well, it may be safe in the sense that they're not going to get tortured, but it's certainly not any sort of viable future for them. They have no security, no opportunity of rebuilding a life, and that's the whole point of refugees isn't just to escape persecution. You can escape persecution by just going to anywhere and just sitting in a corner and starving.

REBECCA CARMODY: The Immigration Minister says he knows the smuggler responsible for this tragedy. He says the man who crammed more than 400 people into the rickety 19-metre boat is a known trafficker from Egypt.

Philip Ruddock says he's passed this information on to Indonesian authorities, as well as an extradition request so that he can be brought before an Australian court. Heart rending stories told by survivors have made front page news today, including that of an eight-year-old girl who lost 21 members of her own family, and a mother whose three daughters drowned.

Mr Ruddock says they could be brought to Australia on humanitarian grounds, but he worries that to do so would be setting a dangerous precedent.

PHILIP RUDDOCK: One would have to weigh up what the import of that would be, because a lot of the people smuggling is in fact fuelled by expectations that people will reach Australia. And when you realise those expectations you encourage others to embark on voyages which are equally as hazardous.

ANDREW BARTLETT: What sort of message is that, that if they go and jump on a boat and sink and half of them drown then that's their way in? I mean this is how ridiculous it's getting. That the Government's suggesting seriously that somehow or other if we take people who just managed to survive drowning at sea, that some other people might try and drown at sea as well so they can get into Australia? I mean, you know, it's beyond the joke.

ELEANOR HALL: That was Democrat Senator Andrew Bartlett ending that report from Rebecca Carmody.


Back to