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Transcript of press conference: Colombo, Sri Lanka: 3 May 2013: Minister's visit to Sri Lanka; people smuggling

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Minister's visit to Sri Lanka, people smuggling Friday, 03 May 2013

Press Conference, Colombo, Sri Lanka

Brendan O'Connor: Thanks very much, and good morning everybody. Thank you for coming. This has been a very important visit for me, and I'd like to thank firstly the High Commissioner for arranging the very important meetings that were held yesterday and some further meetings today. I obviously thank the secretary of Department of Immigration Martin Bowles for coming with me on this important visit.

I've had a good chance to speak with agencies of the Sri Lankan Government, and indeed the External Affairs Minister, yesterday. We had some very cooperative and productive discussions about the common interests of Australia and Sri Lanka. We are a friend of Sri Lanka. We have many things in common, not just cricket, and of course we have a significant Sri Lankan Australian population in Australia.

So can I say to you that the discussions I had were frank and candid yesterday. We made very clear that we were very appreciative of the efforts of the Sri Lankan Government and its agencies to assist Australia in dealing with irregular maritime arrivals. We thank them for the cooperation that has gone on over many years, but most particularly in recent times, and we will continue to work with Sri Lanka to deal with this very complex regional challenge of asylum seekers and irregular maritime arrivals to Australia. All of those bilateral arrangements should be done and will be done under the auspices of the Bali Process, a regional framework, in order to deal with, as I say, a very complicated and complex challenge.

I also want to say that in my discussions yesterday I was able to say that we are a supporter of Sri Lanka being the host of CHOGM later this year. Of course, we will be in attendance, and I made clear we could provide and are very happy to provide practical advice about the organising of such an important international meeting. We believe that through our own experiences we may be able to share some insights about the best way to do that, and indeed that's something we're probably likely to provide in the near future.

In my discussions we made it also very clear that we support the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report, that we support the government having benchmarks, their own benchmarks, and we certainly call upon them to continue to work through those recommendations and have them realised. We believe it's important for the prosperity and stability of Sri Lanka that the benchmarks that the government has set itself should be fulfilled, and we made that very, very clear.

We also, of course, have a role in the aid program here. We think that's a very important element in dealing with the reconciliation post-conflict in Sri Lanka.

So Australia is a friend. We will always speak candidly to the Sri Lankan Government about any concerns we have, and we want to engage fully to ensure that the future of Sri Lanka is one of peace, is one of economic growth, and one of stability, and a country where everybody is included in the future. I'm very happy to take questions or indeed questions or either of the High Commissioner or the Secretary of the Department.

Question: Despite Australia deporting most of the Sri Lankans that go there illegally, there seems to be more and more trying to make Australia by boat mostly. Why are the major [indistinct] propaganda or publicity of the program in Sri Lanka [indistinct]. Continuing why do you - how do you stop that? How [indistinct] do you have?

Brendan O'Connor: Well as I said earlier we work cooperatively with Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan Government and its agencies. Indeed there was a very significant increase in irregular maritime arrivals last year from Sri Lanka, and as a result of the good work between our two countries, we saw a very significant decline in such arrivals.

We believe that it is too dangerous for people to be lured onto unseaworthy vessels on perilous journeys which in some cases leads to tragic maritime disasters. And that's why it's absolutely critical that we put in place deterrents to stop people endangering their lives and we think we've been very successful to date. But it is a challenge, and an ongoing challenge.

And one of the things I raised yesterday was the need for us to continue to combat the trans-national crime of people smuggling. People smuggling and human trafficking occur in our region. The Sri Lankan Government and the Australian Government work with many other countries under the framework of the Bali Process, and we do that because we believe we need to ensure that we have - yes we settle refugees if we have to, yes we afford people protection when they seek our asylum and they have rights to do so, but we must not allow people to endanger their lives, and be told that it's okay to come to Australia in that manner when it is not.

So we fulfil our obligations, we'll work with the Sri Lankan Government to deter people from putting themselves in danger, and will keep doing that as we look to ensuring a more comprehensive regional approach to this very complex issue.

Question: [Inaudible question]

Brendan O'Connor: Well, we've made very clear we want to see progress on the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission Report. We've made very clear to the Sri Lankan Government that we think it's important that they fulfil their own obligations they set themselves to make sure that there is true reconciliation post-conflict. And the only way that can happen is if they respond and ensure they fulfil those obligations arising out of that report. We've made very clear too that for Sri Lanka's future, it's important - and for Sri Lanka's prosperity, it's important there is stability, and everybody's included in Sri

Lanka's future. And we think the progress - we like to see of course, continue to progress to that end as we head towards the time when CHOGM will be convened.

So, I think it's an important time between now and CHOGM for it to be very clear that the Sri Lankan Government is serious about responding to those concerns, and responding in a practical way to ensure people are indeed afforded rights in this country. Now the report itself was very comprehensive, we made it clear that we agreed with the report and we would want to see further progress.

Question: Minister [indistinct] very clear to the government on this benchmark and [indistinct] obligations. This has been very clear to the government, how do you [indistinct]?

Brendan O'Connor: By engaging with people yesterday and, of course, having a very good and productive and constructive conversation with the External Affairs Minister.

I raised these matters yesterday. The Foreign Minister, Senator Carr, from Australia raised these matters when he visited in December. As I say we have a very good and constructive relationship, and we make it very clear what we think is important. And I think the Sri Lankan Government respects our view on that. It is important that there is progress. What we want to see is peace, stability and growth for this country, and reconciliation. And I think that is very important, and that's why of course we've raised these matters.

Question: [Indistinct] …with the numbers continuing to rise in terms of people smugglers, have you discussed new practical [indistinct] for the Sri Lankan Government?

Brendan O'Connor: Well we'll continue to work with the government and agencies about tackling the challenges in stopping people embarking on dangerous journeys. Of course we'll continue to work with them, as we do with other countries in combating this very difficult issue and this trans-national crime. We don't like to see people profiting from other people's desperation, we don't want people to be lured onto vessels because people have lied to them. We do not want to see men, women and children die at sea. For those reasons we'll continue to work with the government and agencies to reduce the chances of people getting on vessels and dying at sea.

Question: Does that mean that any of the people who actually get through to Christmas Island, are they going to be processed or will they be immediately sent back?

Brendan O'Connor: Of course we will continue to return those who don't engage our obligations. We are a signatory to the Refugee Convention, and so we ensure that we fulfil our obligations under that Convention. But where people do not engage those obligations, we will return them home.

That is sending the most powerful message we can send that people should not risk their lives at sea in this manner. And that message, I think, has an impact, and I think

as a result we saw a very significant decline in arrivals throughout this year. But this is a constant challenge for many countries. Countries of origin, transit and destination, and we must work together.

This is a multi-lateral arrangement that's required under the framework of the Bali Process, and we'll continue to work with Sri Lanka and all other countries that are members of that process to ensure people do not risk their lives, do not seek to come in a manner that is dangerous. And yes we'll keep looking at what we need to do to make sure we reduce the chances of people dying at sea.

Question: It remains to be - arrivals from Sri Lanka to Australia may have come down, but that's mostly because the detention - detections in Sri Lanka have gone up. But attempts continue show [indistinct] more and more people trying to get across. The other thing is, how many people have been prosecuted in Australia for being responsible for this illegal transfer of people?

Brendan O'Connor: There's been a very significant number of people that have been charged or convicted of offences because of their engagement and involvement in irregular maritime arrivals. Not just from Sri Lanka. We have, of course, crews that have been prosecuted in Australia as a result. We've had some significant organisers that have been charged and prosecuted as a result.

The organiser of the vessel that foundered on the rocks on Christmas Island on 15 December 2010 was charged and convicted of offences because that organising of that vessel of course led to 50 or more people perishing at sea. So, of course we take these crimes seriously and wherever we can we will prosecute people who break the law and we think that's absolutely important as a deterrent to stop people getting involved in this crime.

Question: [Inaudible]

Brendan O'Connor: Well, look, as I say, we make it very clear it's very important for the future of Sri Lanka. We could not make it any clearer that it's important. Our conversations are candid and constructive and I'm certainly of a view and the Australian Government's of the view that this is important, this is a very, very important step for the future of Sri Lanka.

Those points have been made clear. We've made them before. We'll make them again. We need to focus on this issue and of course CHOGM is a great opportunity for Sri Lanka to host so many countries in the Commonwealth. And I think it's very important, therefore, that leading up to that very important international meeting, the host of that meeting attends to the benchmarks that they set themselves insofar as the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report.

Question: [Inaudible]

Brendan O'Connor: Well, as I say, they understand our position. They're aware of the importance of the report. And I believe they've heard what we have to say, understand that it's important to Australia. I think it's very important that of course they hear what we have to say and respond in kind.

There are some really good opportunities incorporated within that report for this country to progress and it's very important that they do not miss that opportunity.

Compere: One last question please?

Question: Minister, if there is no progress in the LLRC report implementation or in the human rights, would Australia reconsider the level of participation in the CHOGM?

Brendan O'Connor: That's obviously a hypothetical question. We believe that CHOGM is a very important event for this country, provides a great opportunity for the government and the people of Sri Lanka to host a very significant international meeting.

I think the Australian Government fully understands that there are some genuine issues that have been raised by the Australian Government and I'm confident that they're aware of that importance. And it's also important too that, as the Minister for Foreign Affairs has said already, that Australia will be attending CHOGM. There's no doubt about that. And in the meantime, I'm sure the Sri Lankan Government will respond to some of the issues we've raised.

I'm looking forward to further meetings today. I thank you for your attendance and I appreciate the hospitality that I've been shown since I arrived in this beautiful country. Thank you.

Compere: Thank you very much.

See: Index of Speeches

URL: Last update: Monday, 06 May 2013 at 11:31 AEST