Government secretive about Melville asylum seekers
PM - Friday, 7 November , 2003 18:18:00
Reporter: Louise Yaxley

MARK COLVIN: Where are the Kurdish asylum seekers who landed on Melville Island, this week? The Federal Government knows, but it's not telling, and that secrecy has angered the Opposition.

Today the Defence Minister, Robert Hill, has said the navy vessel HMAS Geelong has been towing the boat further away from Australia, but he won't say exactly where it is, or where it's going.

A spokeswoman for the Indonesian Embassy says she's concerned about the four Indonesians who were on board the boat. She says Foreign Affairs promised to provide information about them yesterday, but the Indonesian Embassy has heard nothing yet.

Louise Yaxley reports.

LOUISE YAXLEY: The arrival of the boat off Melville Island on Tuesday prompted the Government to excise 4,000 islands from the Australian migration zone. Since then, obtaining information about that boat and its occupants has been difficult.

The Indonesian Embassy has encountered problems too. A spokeswoman has told PM she asked the Foreign Affairs Department yesterday, for information about the four Indonesians on board, and was given an undertaking that that would be provided. She says she is concerned about the four and has not yet been given any information about them.

This afternoon, when asked a series of questions about the boat and its fate the Defence Minister, Robert Hill, would only say it was being towed further away from Australia.

ROBERT HILL: I think that there's a number of processes taking place at the moment, on a whole Government basis we're communicating with a number of different parties and it's probably better that we be allowed to complete that process.

It was disabled. It has been prepared. I it's been, as I understand it, adequately prepared to be able to move itself but not fully repaired and so, if it needs to go anywhere under its own propulsion it can do so.

REPORTER: Is it going anywhere? Or is it just going away from Australia?

ROBERT HILL: I think it will ultimately go somewhere but I think you should wait for that.

LOUISE YAXLEY: The boat is being towed by HMAS Geelong.

An affidavit lodged in a Darwin court this afternoon, revealed it's under tow on the high seas. It said the towline would be detached if the person or persons in charge of the vessel requested, providing they would go anywhere in the world expect Australia. It's not clear what will happen to the boat if no one asks for the towline to be detached, or makes that promise.

In 2001, at least three vessels referred to by the navy as "SIEVs", or suspected illegal entry vessels, were returned to Indonesian waters. The spokeswoman for the Indonesian Embassy says, she has no information about whether the boat will be taken back to her nation's territory.

Late this afternoon, a Defence Department spokesman referred questions about HMAS Geelong's activities to the Immigration Department. When asked why information about a navy vessel had to be put to the Immigration Department, he said that was the lead agency.

The Immigration Department referred the questions about the asylum seeker boat to the Minister, and PM's not been able to contact the Minister's spokesman.

Labor's Immigration Spokeswoman, Nicola Roxon, says she can see no reason for secrecy.

NICOLA ROXON: Labor is really concerned - what is actually going on and why is the Government trying to cover up the real circumstances?

LOUISE YAXLEY: Are there reasons that there could be a need for secrecy?

NICOLA ROXON: Well, I don't know. I think that the Government, you know, hasn't shown itself to be very accurate in the information that it does put out in these situations. And I think that the public and the media are entitled to know exactly what's going on. There shouldn't be any real reasons for secrecy, I wouldn't think.

And we just hope that the Government will be a little bit more forthcoming with information about this matter.

LOUISE YAXLEY: Earlier today, the Greens Senators failed in a bid to disallow the regulations, which removed the islands from the migration zone. Labor refused to allow the Greens motion to be dealt with today, but says it will combine with others to disallow them during the next sitting of the Senate, later this month.

MARK COLVIN: Louise Yaxley.


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