Transcript of Interview - Radio National 16.1.08
Subjects: Trip to Indonesia, People Smuggling, Border Security, Migration related issues
Date: 16 January 2008
STEVE CANNANE: Will Australia's policy on people smuggling from Indonesia change now that Labor is running the country?
The new Immigration Minister, Senator Chris Evans, heads to Indonesia today to have talks with his counterparts there, dealing with, according to his office, migration issues, including border security and people smuggling.
Now, this was an area of controversy for the last government, with many people, including the then Labor Opposition, questioning the cost and transparency of the arrangements between Australia and Indonesia that stopped boats full of asylum seekers from making it to our shores.
One of the Federal Police's paid informants boasted at the time that he'd helped to scuttle four or five boats with passengers on board.
As Labor Senator John Faulkner put it, the only way we can be certain that nothing illegal or inappropriate has occurred under the auspices of the disruption program is for a full and independent judicial inquiry. That inquiry has so far not taken place, so will Labor be any different in power? Will they put the nature of these arrangements between Australia and Indonesia out in the public domain?
I spoke to Chris Evans, the Minister for Immigration, just before he got on the plane to Indonesia, and asked him had government policy changed in relation to procedures put in place in 2001 to disrupt people smuggling from Indonesia.
CHRIS EVANS: Well, Labor's always argued that the key to dealing with people smuggling is working with our northern neighbours and attacking the issues at source, and trying to ensure people don't leave on leaky boats, put themselves at risk and foster a people smuggling culture.
So we think the relationship with Indonesia is critical. That's why I've made it a priority to go and talk to my counterparts. But our view is that we've got to work with those countries to our north to ensure that we don't get people leaving in - illegally, but in very dangerous situations.
STEVE CANNANE: Your own Labor colleague in the Senate, John Faulkner, who's now Special Minister for State, said in 2003: What is deeply concerning about the disruption program that - is that there appears to be no accountability mechanisms, nothing to ensure that Australia's disruption policy does not lead to illegal or life-threatening events either directly or indirectly.
Can you provide a guarantee now that the disruption program that stops these boats leaving Indonesia and coming to Australia won't lead to illegal or life-threatening events?
CHRIS EVANS: Well, certainly, our focus is on trying to ensure that we stop people leaving in unsafe vehi... unsafe vessels and under s... the people smuggling operations.
I share John's concern about some of the past activities, but it's always been very clear that Labor's policy is about trying to attack the issue at source, trying to get proper handling of potential refugees in the countries of which they are - of which they land first.
STEVE CANNANE: So will that disruption policy change then under Labor?
CHRIS EVANS: Well, certainly, we're talking to Indonesia about how we continue to ensure that people do... people smuggling rackets are broken up. I mean, our policy is directed at that.
The concerns about the disruption policy will obviously be addressed by various ministers responsible. But, certainly, we're very, very committed to ensuring that we're attacking the people smuggling operations at source. The Indonesians are very key to that, and we're helping them with various systems which allow them to better track people moving through their country, and ensuring they have stronger border controls.
STEVE CANNANE: Will you make those disruption arrangements public though? Because in Opposition, Labor criticised the Howard Government for not, in the interests of accountability and transparency, making those people smuggling disruption arrangements public.
CHRIS EVANS: Well, one of the things I'm doing is I'm going to Indonesia to talk to them about those operations and how we can work more cooperatively together. We're certainly still very interested in people smuggling disruption. I think Senator Faulkner's concerns and I think the inquiry into the SIEVX issue was very much focused on whether or not the... there were appropriate methods used or whether the operations had gone too far. And the new Labor ministers will be holding their departments and organisations to account...
STEVE CANNANE: Wil...
CHRIS EVANS: ... to ensure that we are happy with the way they operate.
STEVE CANNANE: And will you be making the information public? Because John Faulkner, back in 2002, said one of the problems he had was, no-one made the disruption program costs public or no-one made it public who received that money. Will you be making that public?
CHRIS EVANS: Well, in terms of my department spending, it is public and the activities my department's officers take part in in Indonesia are public. And one of the things we'll be doing is to look expe... extend that cooperation and some of those arrangements while I'm up there. We're obviously looking to make some announcements with my Indonesian counterparts on how we extend our operations. But I have no reason to believe that noth... anything my departmental officers do isn't public and publicly accountable.
STEVE CANNANE: An AFP paid informant on the Sunday program a few years ago previously boasted that he paid Indonesians on four or five occasions to scuttle people smuggling boats with passengers on board. Do you support those kind of disruption tactics?
CHRIS EVANS: Well, clearly, we wouldn't support people scuttling boats and putting lives at risk. One of the reasons why we're so strong on trying to break up people smuggling rings is because they do put those people's lives at risk. They do leave on boats that are unsafe. We a... we do know people drown because they leave in very unsafe vessels. So that's part of the approach.
But as to questions about what the AFP are up to, obviously, they'd have to go to the relevant minister. But we're not at all supportive of any measures which put people's lives at risk or scuttle boats as clearly not appropriate behaviour.
STEVE CANNANE: Why are you talking about people smuggling now? Is it likely to increase again?
CHRIS EVANS: No. Well, I would have thought it's obvious that one of the priorities for the Immigration Minister is to ensure that our links and cooperation with Indonesia are promoted and fostered.
Labor has long argued that the key to people smuggling operations coming to Australia is to work with our northern neighbours to attack the problem at source where these people operate, where they leave from. The Indonesians have been very cooperative in helping build better systems to ensure that people smuggling rackets are disrupted and attacked. And we want to work very closely with them in those endeavours, and I thought it was important that we send a strong message from the new government that Labor's very committed to working with them on those issues, and that's the purpose of the trip.
STEVE CANNANE: We're talking to Senator Chris Evans, the Minister for Immigration. He's about to head to Indonesia to talk to his counterparts there about migration issues, including border security and people smuggling.
Senator Evans, you say your policy is to get rid of the old Pacific solution, part of the Government's - the former Government's Pacific solution - was excising around 4000 islands that are part of Australia, making them non-Australian land for the purpose of immigration law. Why are you retaining that part of the Pacific solution?
CHRIS EVANS: Well, we're not retaining the Pacific solution, Steve. I...
STEVE CANNANE: But you're retaining that part of the Pacific solution, excising the 4000 islands that are Australian land from immigration law.
CHRIS EVANS: Steve, my understanding, and I think the general understanding of the Pacific solution is the placement of people who come unlawfully to Australia in Pacific nations, not allowing them to enter Australian territory.
We've been in government for six weeks. I moved quickly to get people off Nauru, and we'll be moving very quickly to bring to an end the detention of people under the Pacific solution in Nauru and Manus in Papua New Guinea.
In six weeks, we moved very quickly to make that happen. I'm hopeful that the last of the people on Nauru will be off by the first week in February.
STEVE CANNANE: So why are you retaining that part of the former government's policy of excising 4000 islands that are part of Australia from immigration law?
CHRIS EVANS: Well, we haven't made any decisions yet on the full excision questions, Steve, but we have moved quickly to end the Pacific solution. I think you're confusing some...
STEVE CANNANE: So does that mean that you may change that, you may get rid of that change to the law under the previous government?
CHRIS EVANS: No, we've made clear that we're going to retain the excision of Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef, and one of the things I'm doing on this trip is visiting Christmas Island and looking at our capacity to deal with unauthorised boat arrivals.
STEVE CANNANE: But if an asylum seeker arrives on Christmas Island, which is Australian land, or Ashmore Reef, and they're a legitimate refugee, why shouldn't they, under the spirit of the UN convention, be able to seek asylum in Australia?
CHRIS EVANS: Well, we will treat them properly in accordance with our processes. But they - the island of Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef will remain excised.
STEVE CANNANE: There's a number of Afghan refugees currently on Lombok, have been there since 2001. They apparently made it to Ashmore Reef back in 2001 and were towed back. Refugee advocates say they are in a desperate state. They have members of their families already resettled in Australia. Do you plan to do something about their situation?
CHRIS EVANS: Look, I'm not across the detail of those particular people. That hasn't been something that I've been briefed on. But, certainly, we will be working with the Indonesians to ensure people are processed in accordance with international obligations and treated appropriately.
STEVE CANNANE: Senator Chris Evans, thanks for talking to us this morning.
CHRIS EVANS: Thanks very much.
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