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Transcript of interview with Paul Murray: 6PR, Breakfast: 19 April 2013: returning irregular maritime arrivals to Sri Lanka

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Returning irregular maritime arrivals to Sri Lanka Friday, 19 April 2013

Interview with Paul Murray, 6PR, Breakfast

Paul Murray: Apparently it took that boatload of asylum seekers who made landfall at Geraldton, it took them 44 days, apparently, to get here from Sri Lanka, and it's take only seven days for half of them to be sent back home. Apparently they have - were flown out yesterday. Brendan O'Connor the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship joins us now, g'day Brendan.

Brendan O'Connor: Yeah g'day Paul.

Paul Murray: How was this achieved so quickly?

Brendan O'Connor: Well, we've introduced a process of screening where we ensure that we determine whether people can be considered to be afforded protection under our obligations, or not. In this case, we've ensured that 38 of the 66 are not in that position, they don't engage our international obligations, and we've sent them - we've flown them home to Colombo.

Paul Murray: I suppose the public will be asking the question, if you can do this so quickly with this group, why haven't we been able to do it this quickly previously?

Brendan O'Connor: Look it's very - I mean these are complicated matters. In the case of Sri Lanka we have an arrangement. These are Sri Lankan nationals, and we're not talking about dealing with a transit country, for example in relation to Indonesia. We've got very good cooperation with Indonesia, but most of the people that are coming through that country are not Indonesian, they're trying to get to Australia, as we know.

All first world nations deal with this issue, but we've had now 1004 people returned to Sri Lanka in several months. That really has ensured a real, huge decline in irregular maritime arrivals from that country and we'll continue it because there is no more powerful message to stop people getting on these dangerous vessels or paying people smugglers, than saying you'll go home if you're not afforded protection pursuant to our international obligations.

Paul Murray: So it is fair to assume that it was pretty easy to work out who these people were, to establish their credentials, which is not the case with a lot of those who come from the Middle East through Indonesia?

Brendan O'Connor: Firstly, certainly each circumstance is different. There's no doubt there are people in some circumstances that are fleeing persecution. That's why as a first world nation like the United States and Canada, and other European countries, we do, you know, do our fair share. We're a fair nation, but we've got to be very firm on this. What we cannot allow, Paul, is the 20 000 places we allow for under the humanitarian program to be used for people who are not to be afforded protection.

Because what that means is that people that are desperate, that are in camps around the world, do not get a chance to get out of that dire circumstance. Now, sometimes people think we're being hard hearted. I think we are a good nation, but we're not going to be mugs, and we're not going to be taken for granted, and we're going to deal with our obligations. But we cannot allow a situation where we fill those places of people who are not in that situation, namely fleeing persecution.

Paul Murray: Is one of the things that makes this less complicated the fact that Sri Lanka's quite happy to take these people back, which might not be the case with some people fleeing from the Middle East?

Brendan O'Connor: Well, yes, I think each relationship is different. There's no doubt that if you - well what we find is, of course, it's more likely to be easier if you are dealing with the nationals of that country. For example, we've certainly returned people home to other countries where they are nationals of that country, but you can understand there's a much more complicated situation if people are travelling through transit countries. Those countries themselves that of course are responsible for those people. And so it's a different situation, but that's why we need to implement the Malaysian arrangement.

This would be one of the first occasions where we would return, or send people, to a transit country. And it's never been tried before, it's a very innovative approach. It's recommended by Angus Houston, an eminent Australian, former chief of the Australian Defence Forces, and two other eminent Australians. And we want to get that done because we think that will send the most powerful message that if you get on a vessel, you cannot guarantee going to Australia in that way. We'll see fewer lives lost at sea, we'll see fewer vessels coming as a result, and we'll ensure that we use our humanitarian program for what it was intended which is to look after people who have actually fled persecution.

Paul Murray: But you know, I mean, the Malaysia deal was an 800 for 4000 swap. So we would have sent 800. We've been swamped by that, you know, just in April alone, 1771 people have arrived just in April.

Brendan O'Connor: Yes, but that argument is not right. I mean who wants to be the first 800 that go to Malaysia? See there's no doubt that we have had problems implementing the recommendations because the Opposition, I believe, are not supporting Malaysia because they don't think it will work, they're not supporting it because they're scared that it will.

Now, that's the problem we have here. Now, even if you have any doubt at all, why wouldn't you give it a try, and why wouldn't you listen to the experts? Angus

Houston, Michael L'Estrange and Paris Aristotle, 75 years of experience in border protection, diplomatic affairs, refugee settlement. Here we've got these three people come together, compromising if you like their original positions to come up with practical steps where we can deter vessels and it should be given a go. It should be given a go, Paul. And it's not been, so we can argue all we like about how effective it will be, but why wouldn't we even seek to implement it when experts tell us to.

And I find that - in my view that's an abrogation of the responsibility of the Opposition to assist us on this matter, the national…

Paul Murray: [Interrupts] Brendan if I can just get back quick, we're almost out of time…

Brendan O'Connor: Sure.

Paul Murray: …to the 38 Sri Lankans who have been sent back.

Brendan O'Connor: Yep.

Paul Murray: Human rights advocates are saying that these people were denied access to lawyers, to which they have a right under our international obligations. Is that right?

Brendan O'Connor: If people have not sought legal advice or - certainly through the process have not engaged our international obligations, we've got every right to return people to the original country. And I think it's fair to say that we've got professional people that do the right thing. We treat people with dignity and respect but we have to make sure that their circumstances either fits within the definition of our obligations, or does not. If they do not, we are not going to fill those very important places for humanitarian relief to people who do not engage that obligation. Because that means others who are in desperate situations will miss out. And I think people have to think about that when they advocate that we should somehow allow people to come through a process where they're not engaging our obligation. Because what does that mean for others in very desperate situations? And I think that's…

Paul Murray: [Interrupts] Yeah I think that's a very strong point. So if they don't specifically ask for a lawyer, you don't have to give them one and in fact they won't get one?

Brendan O'Connor: If they're not seeking legal advice, and if they've got no - and through that process, there is clearly no obligation for us to provide protection and as a result of that process - which as I say, we have dedicated professional people who treat them very well. If they do not engage that obligation, we have to be firm but fair. And in this case, 38 of the 66 have been returned home because of that conclusion.

I've got a high regard for the personnel of the department and other agencies of this country. We are a decent and fair country, and I don't particularly like the sort of implication, or the insinuation, that our officers wouldn't do anything but what was fair and that was pursuant to our legal obligations. They do the right thing, we've

returned them home, let's hope that will stop people dying at sea. Let's hope that will ensure that we'll have fewer vessels getting into trouble because we've seen too many deaths at sea, too many fatalities of men, women and children. So I think people should take that in the context in which it's been determined, and let's also hope that when we do fill the places, we make sure we fill them with people who are genuinely fleeing persecution.

Paul Murray: Very good to talk to you today Brendan, thanks for your time.

Brendan O'Connor: Thanks very much Paul.

Paul Murray: Brendan O'Connor Immigration Minister.

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URL: Last update: Friday, 19 April 2013 at 15:47 AEST