Boatpeople `not testing' Labor rule

By Paul Maley, Paige Taylor
3 October 2008

THE first boatload of illegal migrants to be processed on Australian soil since Labor announced an overhaul of the mandatory detention system has arrived on Christmas Island.

As the group of 14 men and women arrived for processing yesterday morning, Immigration Minister Chris Evans was busy hosing down suggestions the group's arrival heralded the beginning of a fresh wave of unlawful arrivals.

Senator Evans said the interception of a boat off Ashmore Reef, off Australia's northwest coast, on Monday did not mean people smugglers were ``testing the waters'' following Labor's changes. The changes were aimed at softening the treatment of detainees and asylum-seekers.

``What we know is that there are thousands of people trying to find safe haven in countries around the world,'' Senator Evans said. ``The reality is we've been dealing with this for years.'.

However, one senior government official intimately familiar with people-smuggling networks yesterday questioned that advice.

The official, who spoke on background, said while it was too early to say if this boat had sailed on the back of Labor's changes, a perception may have developed among people smugglers that Australia had softened its approach.

``I think there's a perception that we may have (softened), they're not quite sure,'' the official said. ``They've certainly read statements, particularly by minister Evans, and I think they're interested in testing it.'.

The official said people smugglers had carefully tracked changes in Australian policy.

``The main change that they would have picked up is that we now don't have this temporary visa, we're moving straight into permanent protection,'' the official said. ``That would be seen by them, I'm sure, as a softening, or as indicating a relaxation.'.

Senator Evans emphasised that, while there had been changes to the treatment of immigration detainees, there had been no softening in border security. ``The border patrol arrangements haven't changed, the excision arrangements haven't changed. We were working closely with Indonesia and other countries to try and stop boats departing,'' he said.

Yesterday, the 12 suspected asylum-seekers and two Indonesian crew were brought ashore at Flying Fish Cove shortly before 11am local time (2pm AEST).

They were met by immigration officials, Customs officials and guards from detention centre contractor GSL to carry out health, security and identity checks on them.

The group, thought to have reached Indonesia from the Middle East, had been travelling towards the Australian territory of Christmas Island, 2600km northwest of Perth, aboard a naval vessel since being picked up at the Ashmore Islands.

``The group seemed mostly like young men, they looked quite healthy and happy, they were smiling and waving to us,'' said observer Michelle Dimasi from the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University in Melbourne.

Ms Dimasi said: ``To me, they appeared to be Afghanis, of Hazara ethnicity.'.

Ms Dimasi said the group was then taken by bus to the island's six-year-old detention centre near the community's swimming pool, often referred to as the temporary detention centre.

The group were intercepted 320km off Australia's northwest coast, early on Monday morning.

They are the first group of boatpeople to arrive since Senator Evans unveiled a new ``risk-based'' approach to immigration detention and expanded review arrangements for people who lodge claims outside Australia's migration zone.

Under the changes, the detainees on Christmas Island can expect access to independent, taxpayer-funded migration agents' advice should they lodge a claim for asylum.

If their claims are unsuccessful, they will have access to an independent review of their decision. Details of how that review process will operate have yet to be finalised. However, they will not have access to Australian courts.

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