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Monday, 23 November 2009
Page: 8537


Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS (2:25 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Evans. I refer to the government’s persistent and now farcical assertion that no special deal was offered to the 78 asylum seekers on the Oceanic Viking. What special deals or arrangements has Australia made with the UNHCR to ensure that the asylum seekers from the Oceanic Viking will be resettled within four to six weeks of the time of disembarkation, as opposed to the years it would normally have taken?


Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —I thank Senator Fierravanti-Wells for the question. It seems very much like the four or five questions she asked me last week, but I am very happy to assist again and respond to her question. What has occurred in relation to the Oceanic Viking is that there was an arrangement between the Indonesian government and the Australian government about how we dealt with the situation that arose following the rescue at sea of those persons who were on board the Oceanic Viking. At the Indonesian government’s request, we attended—in their search and rescue zone—and rescued people who were in fear of drowning. Under the arrangements with the Indonesian government, we took them to an Indonesian port and sought to have them disembark. I am pleased to say, despite us having to show an abundance of patience, eventually all persons disembarked from the Oceanic Viking and went into the detention facility. Women and children are housed in an immigration facility within close proximity of the centre. We tabled in the parliament the agreement between the Indonesian government and the Australian government for the processing and settlement of those persons on the Oceanic Viking and the time frames associated with that.


Senator Fierravanti-Wells —Mr President, I rise on a point of order. I asked the minister a very direct question: what special deal or arrangements has Australia made with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which is responsible for resettlement and for ensuring that the four to six weeks resettlement occurs? That is the question that I asked. Minister, could you please give me a direct answer.


The PRESIDENT —Minister Evans, you have 36 seconds remaining. I draw your attention to the question.


Senator CHRIS EVANS —As I was saying, the time frames that were agreed with the Indonesian government are being applied, and the UNHCR has begun processing the claims of those who were on the Oceanic Viking. As those who followed the case will know, a number had already been found to be refugees. So the UNHCR has begun that work of assessing the claims and processing those persons. Once that is finalised, those who are found to be refugees will be resettled. (Time expired)


Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, in order to honour the four to six week guarantee of resettlement in the special deal, noting that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is responsible for resettlement, has Australia agreed with the UNHCR to take those people who have been found to be refugees? If not, which country will take them?


Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —Mr President, I suggest that Senator Fierravanti-Wells seek to read the document that the Prime Minister tabled in the parliament more than a week ago now. It makes clear—


Senator Fierravanti-Wells interjecting—


The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Fierravanti-Wells, you have asked the question; allow the minister to answer the question.


Senator CHRIS EVANS —That makes clear what is to occur. We are working with the UNHCR, as we have in the past and as the Howard government did in the past, to assist with the resettlement of people who have been found to be refugees. As the Senate would be aware, refugees out of Indonesia have been referred to a number of resettlement countries. In the last nine years, about 1,300 have been resettled, of whom 450 or so have come to Australia, but others have gone to Canada, Sweden, Norway and New Zealand and, I think, some small numbers have gone to other countries. Those processes will be applied by UNHCR in this case. As I said, we expect Australia to take some of those processed, but the UNHCR will go through its processes and we will work with them on that basis.


Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. I ask the minister: unless the government has entered into some special deal or arrangement with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, how can the minister claim that asylum seekers from the Oceanic Viking will be resettled within 12 weeks rather than having to wait for months or years as is usually the case in these circumstances?


Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) —We keep going over the same ground, but, if that is the choice of the opposition, I am happy to answer. We have made it very clear that there was an agreement between the Indonesian government and the Australian government to handle those persons who were on the Oceanic Viking—to deal with the circumstances regarding that rescue at sea by an Australian vessel of those persons in the Indonesian search and rescue zone.

We took them to Indonesia. They disembarked in accordance with the agreement between the two governments. They were not taken to Australia as requested by them and as suggested by a number of senior Liberals. They were processed in Indonesia. They will be processed, while in detention, by the UNHCR. They will have their claims for refugee status assessed. If they are found to be refugees, they will be resettled. If they are found not to be refugees, they will be returned to their country of origin. These are the sorts of arrangements that have been in place and which, as I say, were reflected in the agreement with the Indonesian government. (Time expired)