Tony Burke says people-smugglers sabotage boats to exploit tow-back loophole

Joe Kelly
July 09, 2013 12:32PM

NEW Immigration Minister Tony Burke says that people-smugglers have outsmarted Australian efforts to turn boats back to Indonesia, warning the Coalition plan would only succeed in towing "people around in circles" in the Indian Ocean.

Mr Burke today warned that people-smugglers realised they could prevent boat turn-backs during the Howard government years by sabotaging vessels, exploiting the fact that Australia had an obligation to ensure asylum-seekers didn't drown.

"If anybody actually thinks you can photocopy the rules of 2001, and more than a decade later people-smugglers haven't found a way around them, then they are kidding themselves," Mr Burke said.

"Once they worked out that Australia was not the sort of country that would turn around and leave people drowning in the ocean, they knew they could turn any circumstance into a safety-at sea-operation."

Mr Burke said that in every situation he had examined so far in his new portfolio, the people-smugglers would have been able to circumvent a plan to turn back a boat to Indonesia by exploiting this loophole.

Even if sabotage was avoidable at the point of interception under the Coalition plan, Mr Burke said it would happen once a boat had been taken back to Indonesian waters.

"All you have done, all that has been achieved, is you've effectively towed people around in circles around the Indian Ocean," he said. "That is not the way of dealing with the challenge."

Mr Burke made the comments after The Australian today reported that former high-level military officers had said turning back asylum-seeker boats en route to Australia was possible and would send a strong message to Jakarta.

Retired major-general Jim Molan said boat turn-backs would show that Australia was serious about stopping them while former navy chief Vice Admiral David Ritchie said that while the practice would be risky, it could be done.

Mr Burke said that agreements to fly asylum-seekers back home or to a third country would provide a more effective deterrent.

He said the only way Tony Abbott's policy could work is if people-smugglers forgot everything they had learned over the past ten years.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said it was an absolute necessity to have a boat tow-back policy ''within our arsenal of measures''.

He also said that Mr Burke was making assumptions about search and rescue operations, calling on him to explain why people rescued within Indonesia’s search and rescue zone were not taken back to Indonesia.

''This government has allowed a very, very dangerous precedent to remain in place now for some time and that is if you try and sink your boat, you will get to Australia.''


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