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Immigration Minister discusses processing exc -

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Immigration Minister discusses processing exception

Broadcast: 03/09/2009

Reporter: Rafael Epstein

The Immigration Minister, Senator Chris Evans, joins Lateline to discuss asylum seekers and whether
or not the Federal Government has changed its processing policy.

Transcript

RAFAEL EPSTEIN, PRESENTER: A short time ago the Minister for Immigration Senator Chris Evans joined
us from our Perth studio.

Senator Evans thanks for joining us this evening.

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS, FEDERAL IMMIGRATION MINISTER: My pleasure.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: If Christmas Island is no good for this group of Afghan children, why is it OK for
other children?

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS: We are committed to processing offshore arrivals on Christmas Island. But this
group of children have been there since May 7, I was concerned they were a particularly vulnerable
group, and on this occasion we brought them ashore in preparation for them being awarded their
visas. They're likely to be granted visas, and I expect that will be moving out to the community in
a few weeks.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: How many other people came from Christmas Island to the mainland before their
claims had been processed?

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS: Probably in the order of 50 to 100, under the previous government they brought
a number of people ashore, even off Nauru, people who had medical conditions or had sick relatives
or had to come for legal reasons or what have you.

So it's not uncommon to bring vulnerable people off. On this occasion I thought these children,
without parents, not accompanied by parents, it was appropriate given concerns about the group that
they come off, what will be a couple of weeks early.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: I just wonder if you have the same concerns for other children? Are there other
children on Christmas Island without parents?

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS: Yes, there are. Our concern is expressed by the fact that we treat them
properly, we ensure they have proper care, accommodation, and education and social support. So I
have no concerns that the children on Christmas Island aren't being treated appropriately. But this
group I thought were vulnerable, there was a good reason to bring them off.

About 11 further children are coming off next week, but with full visas. But as I say this 10, I
thought it was important to act a little earlier, they'll be going into immigration facilities,
they will be cared for and hopefully move to grant a visa in a couple of weeks.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: I guess I'm not clear what your concern is about them. They are going into
detention in Melbourne. It's not your policy to keep children in detention for long, the law says
it should be used as a last resort. What is different about your concern for these children, and if
you are so concerned for them, why are they going into detention in Melbourne?

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS: They are going into a facility where they'll be cared for and supervised, some
of these are teenage boys, and some of them are subject to security checks, no one will be released
to the community until they have had their security checks completed. But I'm keen to get children
off Christmas Island as soon as possible. I do think we can provide better services and support for
them on the mainland, but we have to make sure they have had proper health, identity and security
checks. All I have done, proper management if you like in this case, that this group, for a range
of reasons ought to be brought ashore as in the past with people who we thought were vulnerable.
It's just a proper management decision.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: If we could just stop and think about their claims for asylum, I understand some of
them say they were worried about being recruited by the Taliban, effectively being forced to be
fighters for the Taliban. Do you hear that claim a lot from asylum seekers from Afghanistan?

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS: Well I don't interview them and I don't do the assessments, so I wouldn't
necessarily hear all the claims made.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: But is it a common claim made by asylum seekers from there?

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS: It's not one that's been brought to my attention as being a largely relevant
claim, no. Largely people who have escaped violence, difficult conditions, and they are seeking
asylum out of fear of returning.

Each case is examined individually, each person is interviewed both by our security persons and the
Immigration Department and we assess them against the refugee convention. If they are found to be
owed our protection they are granted a visa as a refugee.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: If we could just look at Christmas Island itself for a moment. There's an estimate
from Oxfam that it costs $1,600 extra per day to keep a detainee on Christmas Island compared to
the mainland, $1,600 per day. Is that accurate, is that how much extra it costs?

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS: No, that is not accurate, but I haven't done the comparison directly between
the daily rate on Christmas Island and on the mainland. But I have made it very clear that it is
expensive to house people on Christmas Island, the extra cost of flying staff there and servicing
people on the island makes it more expensive. There's no question about that.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Why persist with it?

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS: The Howard government built the facility at Christmas Island. We committed to
maintaining offshore processing, that's where the facility is, it is a modern facility, it cost
them $400 million to build, it's the only facility of that size available to me. There's a range of
good economic reasons as well as policy reasons to do the processing there.

I don't have anywhere of that size on the mainland to accommodate people, and the accommodation is
modern, the facilities are modern, so there are some advantages from operating off Christmas Island
as well. There's no doubt the cost structure on the island is higher than the mainland.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: I just wonder when it becomes sensible to look at the long term, and when do those
figures become unreasonable?

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS: That's obviously, we'll have to manage over time, we have a $400 million
investment in that facility, there's nothing else it would be used for, and at the moment we have,
you know, 600 people on the island who we have to accommodate. Yes, it's expensive, but it is a
facility available to us, and equally, we maintained offshore processing as part of the deterrent
strategy to deal with unlawful arrivals by boat.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: In April, one of the boats carrying asylum seekers sunk on Ashmore Reef. Northern
Territory authorities are investigating that, are you frustrated that you haven't learnt the
results of that investigation yet?

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS: Certainly we are getting to the stage where we would like to get advice from
them so we can process the refugee applications from those on the boat, and obviously it would be
material to us to know whether or not any of them might face charges as a result of what occurred
on the boat.

So I'm a little frustrated and I'd be very keen for the Northern Territory Police and the Coroner
to report as soon as possible, but it is a matter that is outside the Federal Government's hands,
it's a police investigation, and while I'd like to know the result as soon as possible we are
obviously in their hands.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Did you expect it to take this long?

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS: I thought it would take a while, this is a very serious incident. A number of
people died. They died at sea. No doubt collecting evidence was difficult. There were a lot of
witness statements to take, because a lot of people were on the boat and there were obviously
Australian Navy and other personnel who were witness to what occurred. So I didn't think it would
be quick, but I think we are at the stage where everyone would like to get some report back from
the Northern Territory Police as to whether anyone is likely to be charged.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Have you contacted or has the department contacted the next of kin of the people
who died?

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS: I am not sure of what success has occurred in those regards. Certainly we have
been attempting to work with the survivors in identifying those that died and identifying their
relatives. But I haven't had an update on that activity, obviously that's partly handled by the
police.

Certainly there have been attempts made to make sure their relatives back in Afghanistan were aware
of what had occurred.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: If we can shift focus a bit, I suppose, to migration policy, you reduced the
skilled migration intake this year, obviously in the face of what you thought the economic
conditions were at the time.

Things are looking better with the economy. I wonder if people in business have already approached
you and said, "Listen, we need to think about raising the skilled migration intake again."

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS: I certainly made it clear at the time I thought we would run large migration
programs for a number of years, that this was a temporary correction, and when the economy improved
there'd still be a shortage of skills in the economy. We are obviously trying to fill those skills
needs by training more young Australians for the demands of the economy, but I think we'll still
need strong migration over the coming years, particularly because of the ageing of the work force.

So those demands will commence again, and certainly in my own state of Western Australia I've
already been having discussions with a range of large developments about their skills needs, things
like the Gorgon project.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: So you have already flagged the need to raise that again?

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS: They've started talking to me about what the labour needs will be and
prospects are of getting the skills from the Australian work force. I think Gorgon is relatively
confident they'll be able to fill most of the positions locally. But if we get a succession of
large developments occurring at once, there's no doubt that some migration support will be needed
in order to meet some of those skills needs.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: I just wonder if your policy, your view is to try to stay ahead of the growth curve
of the economy, or do you wait for the economy to grow and wait for people to come to you and say,
"Listen, we need these people".

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS: Obviously we try to stay in front of the game, and we try to make sure that
the migration program is much more responsive to employers' needs, that's one of the things I have
been focusing on for the last year. People have to understand that the most immediate way of
responding to the needs is with a temporary migration program. A lot of employers want to bring
people on only for temporary purposes, for short period of times, and the 457 program meets those
needs.

We have seen a dramatic drop off in the number of 457 visa applications reflecting the state of the
economy. But if the economy picks up, no doubt the numbers of those applications will pick up again
as well.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: On another area of migration policy, I know you were in India recently, and I think
you - I believe you made the point to potential students coming to Australia that you want to
decouple this link between education and migration, you don't want people to think vocational
training in Australia is an automatic path to permanent residency. I just wonder if you make that
point and that point really sinks in in places like India, will people still want to come here and
will they want to learn vocational training for a year or two in Australia if they think it won't
lead to them living in Australia?

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS: Well I guess the proof will be in the pudding. I'm very clear that we run a
migration program to suit the needs of Australia, it's a program to suit our national interests.
Part of that national interest is attracting young highly skilled persons. People who trained here
and have had some work experience here make good migrants, so we'll want to continue to attract
former students into our permanent migration program. But we want to attract those with the skills
that we need, skills that we can't meet locally. So I'm making it very clear to potential students
that the migration program will be based on Australia's needs, not on whatever courses they choose
to study.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: I wonder if you think vocational training is still as attractive to people from
places like India if it's not a step towards coming to live here?

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS: One of the things I want to make sure is that they are looking at courses that
would advantage themselves in terms of coming to Australia. We have got to ensure that we are
sending the clear signals about what skills we need. I think some people have come purely for the
migration pathway, that's why some of them haven't been all that particular about the courses
they've studied or necessarily worried too much about the quality. That's been a really unfortunate
development. I think there is major reform needed. Julia Gillard's embarked upon that. But my job
as Immigration Minister is to make it clear that our program is designed to meet the needs of
Australia, we welcome graduates from a university from overseas and from our colleges who have the
skills that we need.

But we will be deciding on those skills needs and looking to recruit those people, and obviously
that would encourage people to study the sorts of skills we are looking for. Some of those will be
vocational skills, we were short of welders and other occupations like that a year or two ago. We
may well be again, but those decisions have to be based on Australia's national interest, and it
should not be run by courses chosen by overseas students and it won't be.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Can I just ask you to put your political commentary hat on for a moment and
particularly this remarkable story around John Della Bosca, the NSW cabinet minister.

Do you think the media have gone too far, do you think the media are trying to pry into too much of
politicians' private lives?

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS: Look, I have always had a very strong view that we should be able to separate
people's private lives from their public roles. I'm always very protective of my family, and don't
seek to involve them in public debate or public exposure. I think really this is a private matter,
a matter for him and his family, and I don't think there ought to be a lot of press coverage of
those matters.

Clearly there is an argument this impacts on people's public duties, but I think politicians are
entitled to a private life as well, and I am not sure some of this coverage is absolutely
necessary.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: OK Minister, thanks for joining us this evening.

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS: My pleasure.