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Transcript of doorstop interview: Sydney: 27 October 2012: Sri Lankan removals from Cocos Island; voluntary returns; Penny Wong

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SUBJECTS: Sri Lankan removals from Cocos Island, voluntary returns, Penny Wong.

CHRIS BOWEN: Thanks for coming everybody. I wanted firstly to confirm that at one o’clock Australian eastern daylight savings time an airplane carrying 14 Sri Lankans left Cocos Island bound for Sri Lanka. These people were on the vessel Chejan, which was the subject of allegations in relation to a hijacking. Of course, some of these people face serious charges in Sri Lanka. The Government took the view that it’s appropriate that they face those charges, and that the removal occur as soon as possible.

The vessel was intercepted on Thursday night and they left Australia earlier today after discussions between the Australian Government and the Sri Lankan Government. I’d like to thank the Sri Lankan Government and their law enforcement agencies for their cooperation with the Australian Government on this issue.

There was a 15th individual who was not returned today. We’re making further inquiries in relation to his status and we will be progressing, potentially, his removal in the coming period.

This is, of course, important - the Australian people rightly took the view that this was a serious allegation, serious offences that may have been committed. And the Australian Government agrees. The Australian Government takes the view that the Sri Lankan legal system should be able to operate and that these people should face these charges.

Very clearly, this was a unique case, but nevertheless there is an important principle here. When people either cannot make claims, or cannot make credible claims, they should be processed and removed from Australia in a speedy fashion. That’s certainly the directive I’ve given the Department of Immigration, that where people have made no credible claims for asylum then they should be progressed and removed from Australia as soon as possible.

That’s what happened in this particular instance, and these are the powers that are available to the Department of Immigration and the Government - which I think tells the lies to some of the spinning that’s been going on by people smugglers in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. So the Government’s position in relation to Sri Lanka is clear: if somebody can’t make a claim or is not able to make out a claim for asylum, then we will use the powers available to us as we have done today.

Second, on a related but different matter, I’m also in a position to announce that there have been more voluntary returns to Sri Lanka conducted today - seven Sri Lankans left Perth bound for Sri Lanka. Again, these are people who have been lied to by people smugglers. Again, these are people who’ve taken the view that it is now best to return to Sri Lanka rather than deal with the arrangements that the Australian Government has put in place. Of course, we expect to see further returns to Sri Lanka and potentially other countries in the coming period.

Happy to take some questions.

JOURNALIST: So these people that arrived, they were forcible expelled from Australia?

BOWEN: They were removed from Australia. Correct.

JOURNALIST: How long were Australian authorities monitoring their progress? Did you know they were coming?

BOWEN: Well of course this has been public; there were allegations made about what happened to the vessel in Sri Lanka in recent weeks. The vessel was intercepted on Thursday night and that’s when of course the contingency plans that we had put in place for their potential arrival swung into action. They have been actioned over the weekend and the time since Thursday night.

JOURNALIST: There are reports that one of the Sri Lankan’s on board that allegedly stolen vessel was actually in Australia before and was set back to Sri Lanka?

BOWEN: Yes. I understand that to be the case, yes.

JOURNALIST: So Minister, why has there been so much secrecy around this?

BOWEN: Well I don’t think there’s been secrecy. We’ve been progressing their removal, and that entails conversations with other governments, it entails steps being put in place. Hence, here we are today announcing that they have been returned to Sri Lanka.

JOURNALIST: Did the Sri Lankan Government specifically ask for them to be returned?

BOWEN: Well no, this is not an extradition; to be clear this was a removal. But clearly I’m aware that arrest warrants have been issued. I’ve been discussing the matter, as has Foreign Minister Carr, with the Sri Lankan Government, and of course I’m sure that they appreciate the returns occurring in a speedy fashion.

JOURNALIST: Was there pressure on our Government by the Sri Lankan Government though?

BOWEN: No, no.

JOURNALIST: How do you describe the nature of the allegations made against these -

BOWEN: Very serious, very serious allegations and the Australian people were horrified by them, as the Government takes a very dim view of these allegations. Now of course they’re allegations; they need to be tested in the court system, we make no prejudgement about them, but the Sri Lankan court system should be able - and legal system should be able - to apply in relation to these very serious allegations.

JOURNALIST: What credibility does your repatriation system have if someone comes to Australia, they get sent back, we pay for them and then they’re hijacking a fishing vessel?

BOWEN: Well this individual concerned didn’t receive the full reintegration package, that is the case for this individual. We return people, and very clearly now we’re showing that if they return again we have steps available to us which we will implement. It is something that happens, occasionally people get returned and then come again: we take the appropriate steps when they return, as I’ve announced just then.

JOURNALIST: Is this enough to silence the Opposition though?

BOWEN: Well I doubt it. The Opposition will find any excuse to complain, but clearly I think this action has been very, very appropriate. I think all the agencies involved - my department, the Australian Federal Police, Customs and Border Protection, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade - have worked very well together to implement these actions. This is how it’s done; you work together, you make sure that you’re complying with your international obligations and you take swift action when and if you’re able to, as we have on this occasion.

JOURNALIST: Is this unprecedented, this sort of action?

BOWEN: Well this is an unusual situation, this is not something that we face regularly, but I did take the view and the Government took the view at the most senior levels that this is - given the serious nature of these allegations and given that they have not been able to make any credible claims for asylum, that this action was appropriate.

JOURNALIST: If you can send people back after a couple of days, couldn’t you do that more often?

BOWEN: Well, I’ve just indicated to you earlier that these are the powers available to the Government and where appropriate we will use them.

JOURNALIST: I guess, was this decision made before they arrived in Australian waters though?

BOWEN: Well of course we had put in place steps to assess what actions were available to us if and when they should arrive, and contingency plans were put in place. And of course the relevant instructions were issued to the Department of Immigration after they arrived.

JOURNALIST: How long had the Government been tracking the boat for?

BOWEN: Well we don’t track vessels when they’re not in Australian waters. The boat arrived on Thursday night.

JOURNALIST: Minister, were you aware of the allegations before we spoke to one of the alleged victims on Seven News?

BOWEN: Was I aware of the allegations? I became aware of the allegations roughly at the same time as they became public.

JOURNALIST: Now, Senator Wong has lost her number one position on the Senate ticket in South Australia. Anthony Albanese has expressed disgust at the faceless men toppling a hard-working Minister. Do you endorse his frustration?

BOWEN: Well, I actually haven’t seen Anthony’s comments, but I do endorse it. Senator Wong is a very talented Minister who is obviously a very senior Minister as well, but being from New South Wales I don’t lecture other states about their preselections because we’ve occasionally had the odd preselection issue here in New South Wales. But Penny is a very valuable member of the team who deserves full recognition for that.

JOURNALIST: The people you sent to Sri Lanka, were they all men?

BOWEN: No, there were three children involved. They were accompanied children, so not unaccompanied minors. Three children and there was women involved as well.

JOURNALIST: How about the person still here? Is that a man, is he being assessed?

BOWEN: Correct.

JOURNALIST: One is remaining.

BOWEN: Sorry?

JOURNALIST: You’re saying one is remaining?

BOWEN: One remains in Australia pending further enquiries.

JOURNALIST: Why have you -

BOWEN: Well I’m not going to go into details about that, but there was particular circumstances in relation to that one individual which meant that they were not appropriate to be transferred today, but we will be progressing that in the coming period.

JOURNALIST: So there’s still a chance he could be sent back to Sri Lanka?

BOWEN: Absolutely.

JOURNALIST: Are you releasing pictures of the boat in question or…?

BOWEN: I’ve already seen pictures in Australian newspapers, so I don’t think I need to release them, they’re already out there.

Okay? All good, thanks for coming.