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Wednesday, 29 August 2001
Page: 30520

Ms JULIE BISHOP (2:24 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and Reconciliation and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. Given the Prime Minister's statement to the House a short moment ago, would the minister update the House on the government's handling of the motor vessel Tampa and inform the House of the action the government is taking in relation to the flow of illegal arrivals to Australia?

Mr RUDDOCK (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and Minister for Reconciliation and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs) —I thank the honourable member for Curtin for her question and her obvious concern and interest in this matter. Like the Prime Minister, I welcome the Leader of the Opposition's comments today but particularly his affirmation that the legal position is clear. I want to address some comments, if I may, to what has sometimes been asserted as the moral position as distinct from the legal position, because Australia has consistently maintained that it stands ready and willing to provide humanitarian assistance in the form of food, water, medical services and supplies, as well as the safety equipment necessary.

There is one other matter that I wanted to address today, and that is the suggestions that have been made from time to time that Christmas Island is an appropriate place for people rescued at sea on a vessel of the size of Tampa to be taken. I do not know that it is recognised internationally, particularly from some of the comments I have heard, that Christmas Island does not have a port. It has a wharf and a berth to land small vessels. Captain Philpott, who was the former master of vessels for the British Phosphate Trading Christmas Island operation, had this to say, and I think it was something that ought to have been noted and observed:

There are moorings at the island for bulk carriers for loading phosphate. I am familiar with the vessel Tampa, which is the huge container vessel which I believe could exceed the capacity of the moorings, both in tonnage and length. And the other problem is the very high free board of the vessel, which makes it very difficult to disembark to vessels which are not actually alongside a wharf.

The captain went on to say that the likelihood of the boat, the Tampa, ripping out the moorings was such that it would leave Christmas Island unviable as a port for a long period of time if that were to occur. If you were cognisant of the issues relating to the 1,500 people whose home is at Christmas Island, that is obviously a matter of very real concern.

There has been some other questioning in relation to the efforts that Australia is making to deal at source with the problem of illegal trafficking and movement of individuals. As part of a global approach to combating people-smuggling, Australia has been pursuing a range of strategies. One of the strategies has been to establish regional cooperation models with transit countries dealing with the flow of unauthorised arrivals through their territories. These issues are just as important to those countries as they are to Australia, and the more attractive that Australia is as a source, for the reasons that I outlined yesterday, the more people will inevitably end up not only in Australia but in countries of transit. So it is just as important for them to be cognisant of these issues as it is for us.

Under this model, persons detected by local authorities to be travelling illegally to countries like Australia can have their claims for asylum determined there. Persons with refugee claims can apply to the local UNHCR office for protection, and, conversely, those persons found not to be refugees are offered assistance by the International Organisation for Migration to return home. The fact is that Indonesia has already interdicted some 1,500 or so people, whom it presently detains. Amongst those, a number of people have been found to be refugees. As I mentioned, 14 per cent of Afghanis have been found to be refugees, assessed by the UNHCR in Indonesia. Resettlement places are being sought internationally for those people. Already the IOM has been able to return 160 non-refugees who have volunteered for repatriation from Indonesia under these arrangements. But in July Cambodian authorities intercepted 242 people illegally attempting to come to Australia on an unseaworthy boat. The organisers of that failed trip are now in custody and I believe in Cambodia there may have been convictions for people-smuggling against a number of them.

The fact is that many of the 242 passengers held false Afghan passports which they would have destroyed before arrival, if they had come to Australia, in order to hide their identities. They said that they would have claimed to be Afghans on arrival in Australia, but so far half of the boat have now admitted, or been determined, to be Pakistani in citizenship and not Afghan, and 124 people have so far volunteered to be, and have been, returned home, mostly to Pakistan, under IOM arrangements.

Australia continues to support regional authorities in their efforts to contain this insidious trade. We are expanding the number of countries with whom we are formalising exchange of information about people-smuggling and other aspects of illegal immigration. We are working closely with other government agencies and with joint exercises involving the Australian Federal Police, as well as with my department, as part of a smuggling strike team to combat activities, both domestically and overseas.

Another important part of our strategy has been the removal of unauthorised arrivals who have no legal right to remain in Australia. As you may have observed yesterday, I announced that a charter flight took 31 people abroad last weekend. A number of them were people of Palestinian ancestry who had come from Syria, where they already had safe and legal entitlements to continue to reside. We have also been working with international agencies in countries of first asylum and source countries, and we do so particularly through the UNHCR. Australia is committed to reinforcing those efforts and will be very much involved in developing plans with international agencies and the UNHCR to strengthen their efforts in places like Pakistan and Iran, and, when appropriate arrangements have been put together with those agencies, we will be providing additional support that will meaningfully address the issues, particularly in relation to Afghans, by committing up to an additional $14 million to assist in efforts to contain those secondary flows, and to assist in the return of displaced people from refugee camps. If those arrangements can be concluded as planned—and the enormity of this commitment ought to be understood—it will be an effective doubling of the resources made available by Australia to deal with these issues at source.

No-one should see Australia as lacking in sensitivity to these issues and as unwilling to play its part in dealing with these issues constructively and positively. If all members note and bring those efforts to people's attention, a lot of the public discussion will be much more sensible and responsible.

Mr SPEAKER —Just before I recognise the Leader of the Opposition, understandably with the number of guests and with a changed approach to question time, a number of people have been conferencing in the aisles. Can I discourage that practice, as that practice is in fact discouraged by the standing orders.