Ministers wrong on refugees

By Sophie Morris, Kimina Lyall, Dennis Shanahan and Stuart Rintoul
The Australian
November 14, 2003

DEFENCE force records show 14 Kurds expelled from Australian waters clearly identified themselves as refugees and declared they wanted to stay, directly contradicting government claims.

Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone released a letter from the People Smuggling Taskforce yesterday, confirming she and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer were wrong when they said on Sunday that the men had not claimed asylum.

The men told defence personnel they were Kurdish refugees who wanted to go to Australia because Turkey "was no good", according to defence records provided on Tuesday to the taskforce.

The People Smuggling Taskforce is the group of bureaucrats who co-ordinate the Government's response to boat arrivals.

One of the 14 Kurds pointed at the word "refugee" in an English/Turkish dictionary.

The records, outlined in a letter from taskforce chairman Ed Killesteyn - deputy secretary of the Immigration Department - corroborate claims the Kurdish men have made since reaching Indonesia.

But Senator Vanstone insisted the new information - released only after media reports the men had claimed asylum - was not relevant, because Melville Island, where they came ashore, had been retrospectively removed from the migration zone.

Labor and the minor parties yesterday accused the Howard Government of deceiving the public in the same way it had with false claims in 2001 that asylum-seekers had thrown children overboard.

In London, speaking before Senator Vanstone released the letter, Opposition Leader Simon Crean called on the Government to "come clean" about events surrounding the arrival of the boat, Minasa Bone.

The Democrats and Greens have called for a Senate inquiry and Mr Crean said this might be necessary if answers were not forthcoming in parliament.

Speaking in London, Mr Crean suggested asylum-seekers should be removed only after being assessed and found not to be refugees.

Senator Vanstone denied returning the boat to Indonesia had fuelled tensions with Jakarta, rejecting a claim from Indonesian Immigration Department spokesman Ade Dachlan that Australia was treating its northern neighbour as a "dumping ground".

Indonesian Justice Minister Yusril Ihza Mahendra also sought to diffuse tensions, saying if boats came from Indonesia, Australia had a right to send them back, but Indonesia could refuse to take them. "If they cross the border and they are in Australian territory, I think this is the responsibility of the Australian Government," Mr Mahendra said.

Rejecting the UN High Commissioner for Refugees's criticism of the Government's expulsion of the boat, Senator Vanstone said she was "surprised and disappointed" by the comments, given the organisation received government funding to process asylum claims in Indonesia.

The Australian ambassador to Geneva Mike Smith visited UNHCR headquarters to relay the Government's anger, while regional representative Michel Gabaudan was called in for a meeting with immigration officials in Canberra.

The funding Senator Vanstone referred to was for processing asylum claims in Indonesia, not for dealing with asylum-seekers who made it to Australia, Mr Gabaudan said.

The Kurds remained in immigration detention in Jakarta as the UNHCR sought access to them. One of the men, Ali Kizil, complained that Australian "soldiers" had not provided ample food or medicine and had denied them raincoats.

"Five to six soldiers came with guns and treated us as if we were terrorists or something," Mr Kizil said.

Before her press conference was curtailed by a confrontation with an angry student at Melbourne University, Senator Vanstone said the men received three "culturally sensitive" meals a day from the navy after they arrived at Melville Island.


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