Asylum boat tip-off 'too vague'
By Patricia Karvelas
8 July 2003
BORDER protection agency Coastwatch failed to detect the Vietnamese asylum-seeker boat before it reached Australia's migration zone because intelligence received in Indonesia had been too vague, the Government said yesterday.
Customs Minister Chris Ellison rejected claims that Coastwatch had mounted an extensive surveillance operation in the wrong stretch of water after being warned that a boatload of Vietnamese had left Indonesia for Australia.
Senator Ellison said the task of finding the Vietnamese vessel had been complicated by the uncertainty of the information.
"The reality is that the information received was such that the vessel could have been located anywhere in a body of water stretching up to 900,000 square nautical miles," he said.
Claims of the bungle by the International Organisation for Migration's chief of mission in Jakarta, Steve Cook, were incorrect.
"Assets were already in place to cover the route along the Javanese Coast, and both Coastwatch and Defence deployed additional assets to the Pilbara coast once the information was received about the possible departure of a SIEV (suspected illegal entry vessel) from the island of Java," Senator Ellison said.
Coastwatch's failure to detect the vessel until it was in Australia's migration zone has led to calls by Labor for a permanent coastguard - a policy it took to the last election.
But John Howard said yesterday that Labor's plan to set up a coastguard would harm the navy and weaken the defence forces.
The Prime Minister said that not only would navy personnel miss out on vital training if they were transferred to a coastguard, but they might also become union members.
"One of the consequences is that it could well mean that the personnel involved fell under union control, because a coastguard could well be within the reach of the Maritime Union of Australia, which I think all of you would agree would be a very undesirable outcome," Mr Howard said.
He said Australia's success in border control since late August 2001, at the time of the Tampa crisis, had been "remarkable, given the size of our coastline and the nature of the challenge that we faced".
Until last week, when a boat carrying 53 Vietnamese asylum-seekers entered the migration zone off Western Australia, no illegal boatpeople had arrived in Australian waters since August 2001.
The federal Government continued yesterday to refuse to release figures on how much it would cost to detain the Vietnamese asylum-seekers on Christmas Island.
A spokesman for Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said the figures would eventually be released, but they were not yet clear.
"It will obviously cost more to process them on Christmas Island," the spokesman said. "There's no doubt about that."
The Immigration Department said it was too busy processing the Vietnamese asylum-seekers to give priority to tallying the cost.