TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER
THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP
JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE WITH THE MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION
THE HON PHILIP RUDDOCK MP - SYDNEY
1 September 2001
Subjects: illegal immigrants
Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr Ruddock and I have called this news conference this morning to announce that an agreement has been reached so that all of the people on board the MV Tampa can be processed in third countries, not in Australia or in an Australian Territory, to have their claims for refugee status determined and then dealt with under the normal processes applying to refugees around the world.
The Government of Australia has reached an agreement with the Governments of New Zealand and Nauru for those two countries between them to take all of the people on board. New Zealand has agreed to take 150 and Nauru the rest. In both cases the processing of their claims and the determination of their status under the international rules applicable to people seeking refugee or asylum status will be carried out in those two countries.
I want to express the gratitude of Australia to both New Zealand and Nauru. I've spoken to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark and I've also spoken to the President of Nauru, Rene Harris.
We have informed the two relevant international agencies, that is the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the IOM of our proposals and of the agreement concluded between Australia and those two countries. Naturally, the UNHCR and the IOM will both be involved and indeed their involvement is part of the process of resolving this very difficult situation.
In the case of Nauru, Australia will of course accept completely and without any qualification the total cost of funding the operation so that in no way will Nauru be disadvantaged by what has been offered and accepted by Australia.
Australia will be fully responsible for arranging the trans-shipment through third countries of the people who are now on the Tampa. In the case of New Zealand there's been an indication from the Prime Minister to me that amongst the 150 that will go there, those who are assessed to be refugees will be allowed to stay in New Zealand. In the case of Nauru, those assessed to be refugees will have in accordance with the normal procedures access to Australia and other countries who are willing to take refugees. It having been our position all along that consistent with our open policy concerning refugees we have always stood ready to take our fair share. We note that in the context of the exchanges over the past few days, Norway has indicated that it would be willing to take some of the people ultimately determined as refugees from amongst those on the Tampa. In those circumstances we would envisage that Norway would be one of the other countries and we would hope that there would be a number of other countries that would be willing to take a fair entitlement of refugees.
We have in mind, and the numbers will allow this, that women and children and those connected with them, and therefore forming family groups will go to New Zealand. My understanding is that the numbers are such that that can be readily accommodated within the number that New Zealand has indicated that she will take.
There will be further details to be advised about trans-shipment arrangements, they will be carried out carefully and in a very humane fashion. But I should emphasise that this agreement and this potential solution to this very difficult issue does not involve the people being taken onto Christmas Island or onto Australian Territory or any part of the Australian mainland. That has been quite fundamental to the Government's position and we have maintained that and we intend to maintain that.
Could I also inform you that commencing immediately the Australian Defence Force will conduct enhanced surveillance, patrol and response operations in international waters between the Indonesian archipelago and Australia. This will involve five naval vessels and four P3 Orion aircraft. The enhanced operation will be reviewed after a period of three weeks. An Australian Defence Force mission went to Jakarta yesterday to inform the Indonesians in advance of this operation. The Indonesians welcomed the advance notice and they indicated to our military delegation that they would offer port visits and refuelling facilities for the Australian vessels. It is important that our surveillance and control activity in the waters between Indonesia and Australia be enhanced and that is the measure of the enhancement which is quite significant that is proposed at the present time.
Ladies and Gentlemen, before taking your questions can I say that this remains a difficult issue to bring to the satisfactory conclusion that I believe can be achieved as a result of the agreement that has been reached. Australia is naturally very grateful to both New Zealand and Nauru. I had a conversation yesterday afternoon with Helen Clark and it is of course of a piece with the traditional co-operation between Australia and New Zealand that something like this could be realised. And I am very grateful to the New Zealand Government and I'm very grateful to the Prime Minister of that country with whom I have developed a very constructive and positive relationship in the time that we have been together as Prime Ministers of our respective countries. Can I also express my warm gratitude to the Government of Nauru, to its President, for its offer. I believe this offers us a way of resolving fairly and humanely and consistent with the position Australia has taken all along that the processing had to take place outside of Australia and that we cannot allow a situation where people can forcibly enter the territory of Australia and on the basis of that be entitled to claim refugee status. So it will involve, to bring to fruition some further challenging and delicate arrangements but I believe they can be achieved and as I say the further details of the trans-shipment of the people will be announced as and when it's appropriate and we'll continue in the mean while to provide all the humanitarian assistance and additional food and what additional comforts can be provided while the people in question remain on the Tampa. And it was clear and reassuring from what the Norwegian Ambassador said last night after he left the vessel that whilst there are some health problems there, they're not of a magnitude which at this stage can't be managed quite effectively and quite easily by the ADF doctors who are on hand and they're certainly not problems that give cause to any need, or give rise to any need for people to be medically evacuated.
Can I say again how much I have appreciated the assistance and advice and cooperation of my colleague Mr Ruddock who of course more than anybody in Australia has had to grapple with the hugely challenging task of unauthorised arrivals for which, in the long run, the international community must accept the responsibility of finding a comprehensive solution. No one country and be expected to carry the responsibility of solving this problem, we need the involvement and the commitment of international agencies and they must be diligent in pointing out to all countries that they have responsibilities. I mean we have a problem here because of the easy movement of people through certain countries and it's the responsibility of the United Nations and their agencies to involve themselves in addressing that issue. But I am pleased that we have made progress, this is a real breakthrough. It does give us the basis of handling the problem consistent with the assertion by Australia that our border integrity is not to be breached.
JOURNALIST: What instructions will be given to the captains of warships should they encounter people…..?
PRIME MINISTER: I don't normally try and detail what operational instructions will be given. All I can say to you, Geoff, is that as always Australian Defence Personal will act in accordance with the law and in a humane fashion.
PRIME MINISTER: We are talking about, and I emphasise it, we're talking about an enhanced surveillance patrol and response operation. Geoff, don't think for a moment that we're talking about acts of belligerence, but we're certainly talking about acts which are designed to deter and encourage deterrence and also to enhance the fact that we are quite properly endeavouring to discourage people from setting out in the first place.
JOURNALIST: How close will they patrol to Indonesia?
PRIME MINISTER: Well in accordance with whatever the arrangements are, look there'll be no, I mean they will be doing, they will be acting in international waters and they'll be acting in the accordance with the normal modalities, we've explained all of this to the Indonesians so they're not in any way alarmed about it. I mean in fact they welcomed being told in advance and they've offered home port facilities and refuelling, so there's not a problem with the Indonesians.
JOURNALIST: Have you spoken to Megawati about enhanced surveillance?
PRIME MINISTER: I have been endeavouring to speak to the President for the last couple of days and I will continue to do that but it was all notified yesterday so the Indonesians know about it.
JOURNALIST: What is the timetable for refugees to be moved?
PRIME MINISTER: I can't give you a timetable at the moment. It will be as soon as possible, but it is a difficult operation. But the important thing is we have got a breakthrough, we have got an agreement and it's an agreement that is consistent with the position Australia has taken all along. I mean we have said all along that we are not going to have a situation where people can by illegal entry force upon Australia processing on Australian soil because once that happens, refugee claims can be made and the whole process that has been bedevilling our legal system and tying up our detention centres and making Mr Ruddock's life very difficult, that whole process would start again. And what we have been able to do is to find a way in a humane decent fashion with the co-operation of our friends in the Pacific and this is a Pacific solution, we have been able to find a response that can be effective. Now as to the timetable I can't tell you at the moment, it obviously can't be done over night but we can now commence the process. We have notified the IOM and the UNHCR of the proposal and we obviously will get to work immediately and there will be a lot of logistic support required in the case of Nauru and we obviously are already setting about that and we are obviously going to have a situation where we accept all of the responsibility financially and otherwise because Nauru is not in a position to do it and I can assure the people of Nauru that this is not an arrangement that will provide handicaps or difficulties or suffering for the people of Nauru. Quite the reverse.
JOURNALIST: Do you think Australia's image has suffered in the eyes of the world?
PRIME MINISTER: No I don't. I think people who understand these matters will recognise that every country has a right to defend the integrity of its borders. And can I make the obvious comment, perhaps obvious to us but not to other people. This country, after Canada, is the most generous in the world in taking refugees. The second most generous country in the world in taking refugees after Canada. Now that is a pretty good record and we aim to keep that record.
JOURNALIST: Are you embarrassed Nauru and NZ have bailed you out of this situation?
PRIME MINISTER: I am grateful that they have offered assistance but it is of a piece with the fact that we have good relations with those two countries and when you have good relations with countries, they are willing to cooperate when you need it, just as when they need it we are willing to cooperate. Good friends provide cooperation with each other if that cooperation is needed. But it was always going to be the case that if Australia asserted what it does and that is that it was not going to allow these people to be processed on Australian soil or in Australian territory, it was always going to be the case that we would have to make arrangements with other countries because we are simply not of a mind to say well go back into the sea and we don't care what happens to you. I mean that is not the Australian way, it never has been. So we have found a way of dealing with it and we have found an effective way and I am grateful that those two countries have been willing to involve themselves in the solution. I really am very grateful.
MINISTER RUDDOCK: Could I just add something there because I think it is appropriate we don't lose sight of the reason for our determination. And the reason is about humanity and about lives. There are 5000 people in Indonesia intent on travelling unlawfully to Australia if they can according to most recent report. And this issue and the way in which it is handled is a significant issue in the eyes of those people who are making decisions in Indonesia as to whether or not they will come here. We would have had 900 people already on Christmas Island according to the information we have received. They put off those intended voyages to see how this was resolved. That is if people were landed on Christmas Island, the assumption that they would make is that the way remained open to come that way. Now what is the implication? The implication of that is that people will get into boats who are increasingly more fragile, more vulnerable with less experienced crew. We had reports this week of two vessels, one that possibly returned to Indonesia that was intending to go to Ashmore Reef and another that has been overdue now for over a week or more. It may have gone back, it may have been lost. And the real problem is that if we are not dealing with this issue, if we leave it open for people to think the only way in which you are going to get an outcome is to travel to Australian clandestinely and is not effectively addressed, we are condemning other people to die and we are condemning other people who have far more urgent claims for resettlement to miss out. So it is a humanitarian response. It is not an inhumane response to be saying we deny landing to Christmas Island when we know that the driving factor for people to come this way to Australia is that the determination system is far more generous than the international determination system. In other words we find refugees where the UNHCR doesn't. And secondly, people go past many places where they are safe and secure, because at the end of the day if people are in Australia they are going to be supported. If they are anywhere else they won't be. And so they are the incentive pull factors that are operating and if we were to land these people on Christmas Island now, that would be a firm signal to those who are involved in the people smuggling business that the way remains open and these issues effectively aren't addressed.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, will the policing of the international waters between Indonesia and Australia, will part of that be that Australian military personnel can board and inspect foreign vessels?
PRIME MINISTER: Well they will act within the law and I don't want to go into that because ….
JOURNALIST: Is that allowed for?
PRIME MINISTER: Well whatever is lawful under present practice. We are not sort of altering the practice. What we are doing is enhancing existing activity and that means that what is now happening is going to be happening more intensely and more frequently and you will really have a form of saturation surveillance but I don't want people to infer from that other, that we are sort of bringing in a new regime of behaviour in relation to that. But it is designed, it is a difficult position. We don't in this nation sink boats. We don't ignore pleas for help but we seek, consistent with our decency, and within the law, to deter people from coming to this country in these boats. Against the background that at present they are not deterred from leaving Indonesia. And we have to well, just let me finish, and we therefore have to within those constraints, we have to demonstrate within the law and consistent with humane behaviour, we have to demonstrate our determination. And whatever we have on occasions done in the past we will do more intensely in the future.
JOURNALIST: What will you do with boatpeople that the Navy finds in…
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I am not going to hypothise about that. I mean the worst thing you can do, the most unhelpful from Australia's point of view is for me to start hypothesising about that. I mean there comes a point where there are some answers that shouldn't be given by me or Mr Ruddock because, to the hypothetical propositions, because it undermines the purpose of what we are trying to do. I mean we do have a difficult problem. We do not have the cooperation of countries that should be cooperating and that is something that we are working hard at changing. Next week Mr Ruddock and Mr Downer and Mr Reith will be going to Jakarta and that has been arranged to talk further about a medium term solution to the problem. But we are doing a lot. We are increasing surveillance. We have proposed a solution to the Tampa problem consistent with Australia's border integrity. We are increasing the surveillance very significantly. We have engaged the Indonesians about the medium and longer-term solution to the problem. I mean the ultimate solution to this problem is an agreement that people can no longer go willy-nilly to Indonesia and then without lead or hindrance leave there, get on boats and go to Australia. Now to stop that completely you need the cooperation of the Indonesian Government but as Phillip rightly said what has been done in relation to the Tampa and more particularly what has been avoided by Australia's determination not to allow people on the Tampa to be processed on Australian territory is to send a signal and it may well have had a discouraging effect. I hope it has and I am sure that all Australians hope it has and that has been one of the reasons why we have been so determined that the processing should take place elsewhere.
JOURNALIST: Have you attempted to reintroduce a sense of bipartisanship by briefing Mr Beazley…
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I will talk to the Labor Party about this but I mean I don't know whether the Labor Party wants to be bipartisan or not. I mean Mr Beazley does walk both sides of the street. I mean one day he was saying the last thing I needed with a difficult issue like this is a negative carping opposition. And within a few hours he became exactly that. Even talking about One Nation and wedge politics and race. The duty of an opposition on an occasion like this is to steadfastly support the national interest. But I mean that's his choice. If he wants any further briefing on this it will be made available to him.
MINISTER RUDDOCK: I might say on this that there were some other issues as well this week and that was without consultation with me or discussion with me the Opposition determined to put off for Senate Committee Review the important Migration Reform Legislation which deals with issues relating to bringing our determination system in line with the approach taken by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, particularly in relation to the interpretation of persecution taking into account the extent to which people come to Australia without proper and adequate documentation where they deliberately seek to deceive us. Now those measures are important. The effect of delaying the implementation of that legislation denies our system very important reforms. I was not consulted about putting it off. I raised it in the Parliament and the Opposition says well come and talk to us. But on those matters, you know, when it's convenient to put it off without talking to us they do it, but then they demand from us that we should be engaging them on all of the range of issues that we have to address.
There was one other issue that I might also take up if I may Prime Minister and that is the announcements I made this week in the Parliament. We have been taking a wide view of these issues because there are matters that if the international community is prepared to address them can significantly assist in ameliorating the condition of people who have genuinely fled Afghanistan because of the impact of the Taliban regime. The people who are fleeing at the moment and there are some hundred thousand or more of them in Pakistan who have no money to travel, no capacity to engage people smugglers, is an international emergency of a very considerable order. The people that we are seeing on boats are not the people who are immediately fleeing the Taliban and Afghanistan at the moment. They're the people who are the sons and daughters often of people who fled Afghanistan a generation ago, frequently born in Pakistan, often having worked in places like the Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and are under some pressure I think from some of those Middle Eastern countries at the moment to return back to Pakistan. And they're the people who have the resources to engage the people smugglers. They're the ones who are travelling and they are not necessarily those who if you were assessing them in terms of priority for a resettlement place that you would be offering. The international community needs to deal with that issue. Australia cannot deal with it alone. Pakistan and Iran, as the adjacent countries, have had a burden. But the international community has been progressively walking away from it. And there needs to be a renewal of effort. I went two years ago to Europe. I met with the European community, many European leaders, and endeavoured to convince them at that time that there needed to be a comprehensive solution. And we pledged last week to effectively double our contribution to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees if there can be effective measures instituted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, with non-government agencies, to address the plight of those in Iran and in Pakistan right now. And that offer has been made to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. We want to see effective plans that will utilise those resources in that area and we want to see other countries coming on board to match what we are offering to deal with these issues at source.
JOURNALIST: Who's going to tell the would be asylum seekers…?
PRIME MINISTER: Well that is a matter that will be handled in the appropriate fashion Geoff. I'm not going to go into the detail of that.
JOURNALIST: What are the arrangements for the transhipment…..?
PRIME MINISTER: I'm not going to speculate about that at the moment. We're still working a few things out on that. But we have a number of options but until a number of further discussions have taken place I'm not going to go into them.
JOURNALIST: Did we approach Nauru or did they approach us?
PRIME MINISTER: Well there've been discussions both ways.
PRIME MINISTER: Well look I'm not going into that detail.
JOURNALIST: You've said that good friends provide help. What does this say about our friendship with Indonesia?
PRIME MINISTER: Well Australia's friendship with Indonesia is obviously not as close as our friendship with New Zealand and Nauru and it never has been. I mean Australia's friendship with Indonesia has gone under strain because of East Timor. We all know that. But can I just say in relation to Indonesia that it was plain from the very beginning that Indonesia was, whatever the obligation it may have had, that Indonesia was not going to take these people back. I mean I noticed Mr Beazley has sort of kept running around talking about, you know, the question of ringing President Megawati. It was made very plain to Australia unmistakably at the beginning that Indonesia was not going to take these people back.
JOURNALIST: Why did Australia persist then in trying to contact Indonesia?
PRIME MINISTER: Because we still think they should have gone there.
JOURNALIST: But you said it was obviously plain that they weren't going to cooperate.
PRIME MINISTER: Yes but that doesn't mean to say you…..I mean often people will say I'm not going to do something but that doesn't mean to say you shouldn't continue to assert that they ought to, otherwise people would never fall under any obligation to meet their obligations. I mean these people should have been returned and taken back by Indonesia because that's where they came from. But the point I'm simply making to you that from day one we were searching around for an option that didn't involve them returning to Indonesia. I mean we can have an academic debate about who rang who first and what day of the week but when you've got something like this in your lap you look for a solution. You don't sort of engage in a high school debate about who should have rung who first which has essentially been the stock in trade of the Leader of the Opposition's contribution after he abandoned the bipartisan approach he initially adopted. Look can I just go back to that point, I mean if the Leader of the Opposition had retained the spirit of the exchange we had in the House when he said the last thing the Government wants at a time like this is a negative carping Opposition I'd have been, you know, of the view that there could have been a total involvement. But the fact is the Opposition is not really offering bipartisan support. They want the bipartisan support when it's convenient and comfortable but when there's a political point to be made they put the boot in. I mean that's fair enough. I mean I can put up with that and I've had that happen on numerous occasions. But the sort of bipartisan support that they're offering now is nothing like for example what was offered say by the then Opposition in relation to the participation in the Gulf War where there was absolutely no criticism of any kind at any stage. Now I'm not saying that circumstances are analogous but that is an illustration of bipartisan support.
JOURNALIST: Are you concerned that you have not spoken with Megawati?
PRIME MINISTER: No no I'm not really concerned about that. I mean I think…..look, I can understand. I mean they're in a difficult position. I think they made it plain they have other priorities. I understand that. But can I just say again that Australia's relationship with Indonesia is better now than it was six months ago but it was always going to be put under strain as a result of what we did in East Timor which was the right thing to do, and it will never be the same as what it was in the Keating years. I mean I think it was on an unbalanced, unrealistic level in those days. But I don't want to go back over that. It's not really relevant to the current situation. We will work very closely with the Indonesians to try and find a solution. But they're not going to take the people back. That was plain at the beginning. I'm sure that we'll have a conversation and I'm sure it'll be very amiable but they're just demonstrating that they don't want to take them back. I don't agree with that because I think they have an obligation but I have to deal in realities and the reality was that we had to find an alternative, not conduct a never ending foreign policy debate. We had to find an alternative. Now we have found an alternative and I think it is fair to say that we've found an alternative with countries with which historically we've always been very close. I mean New Zealand is after all in so many ways Australia's best and oldest friend and the Prime Minister of New Zealand said that to me when I spoke to her on the phone yesterday afternoon. There is a reciprocity and a warmth in a relationship of that kind and Nauru being part of the Pacific family shares that and there's a certain symbolism in the fact that we have found a Pacific solution to this difficult issue.
JOURNALIST: How much are we paying Nauru to take these people?
PRIME MINISTER: Well we'll be covering all of the costs. I mean the question of what those costs are I don't know. But look I make no bones in saying that I think this is a very generous offer and certainly I think when countries in that situation behave generously and decently we should be willing to reciprocate.
JOURNALIST: Has the captain of the Tampa agreed to the transhipment?
PRIME MINISTER: Well I'm sure that there are discussions underway but I don't think I need to say any more at the present time than that.