People smuggler blocks to continue, says minister

Jewel Topsfield
January 17, 2008
AGE

AUSTRALIA'S controversial disruption program aimed at preventing people smugglers leaving Indonesia will be retained by the Rudd Government despite Labor expressing deep concern when in opposition that it may involve the sabotage of boats.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans, who is in Indonesia this week to hold talks on border security, yesterday said Australia was "still very interested in people smuggling disruptions".

"The concerns about that disruption policy will obviously be addressed by various ministers responsible, but certainly we are very committed to ensuring that we are attacking the people smuggling operations at source," Senator Evans told the ABC.

In 2002, John Faulkner, now a cabinet minister, called for an independent judicial inquiry into the disruption policy, questioning whether it had extended to interfering with smugglers' vessels, including the SIEV-X. The SIEV-X sank after its engine failed en route to Christmas Island in 2001, drowning 353 asylum seekers.

"What is deeply concerning about the disruption program 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," Senator Faulkner said in a 2003 speech.

"We still do not know if disruption extends to physical interference with vessels, nor do we know what consideration has been given to questions of maritime safety."

Senator Evans yesterday said he shared Senator Faulkner's concerns about some of the past activities.

"I think Senator Faulkner's concern was very much focused on whether or not there were appropriate methods used or whether the operations had gone too far," Senator Evans said. "And the new Labor ministers will be holding their departments and organisations to account."

Under the former government, the disruption program was run from the Australian embassy in Jakarta and involved the Australian Federal Police, the Indonesian police and other agencies.

Its role was to intervene between people smugglers and their clients, and involved giving fishermen T-shirts bearing warnings about the charges people smugglers faced.

But Senator Faulkner questioned whether the policy also involved sabotage of vessels after a former paid Federal Police informant, Kevin Enniss, claimed he hired people to sink asylum seeker boats on at least four occasions as part of the program.

His claim was strongly disputed by the AFP.

But Labor's suspicions were further piqued when Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty invoked a "public interest" immunity in 2002 to avoid questions on whether his agency used tracking devices on people smuggling vessels coming to Australia from Indonesia.

Senator Evans yesterday said the Government clearly would not support people scuttling boats and putting lives at risk.

Meanwhile, he said the Government had not decided whether to reverse the former government's excision of 4000 islands including Magnetic and Dunk islands in Queensland from Australia's migration zone.

The excising of the islands prevents asylum seekers who reach them from invoking Australia's refugee protection regime.

"We haven't made any decisions yet on the full excision questions," Senator Evans said.

But he said Labor would retain the excision of Christmas Island, where a 400-bed detention centre is being built, and Ashmore Reef.

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