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Doorstop interview: 5 July 2003: Berowra Electorate Office, George St, Hornsby.

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Doorstop Interview, Berowra Electorate Office, George St, Hornsby, 5 July 2003

Journalist: Tell us the deal with the committee leaving about an hour before the (HMAS) Canberra arrived?

Mr Ruddock: Well I mean there has been a parliamentary committee that's been undertaking an inquiry in relation to detention arrangements at Christmas Island and that role is in relation to an examination of the physical environment and was approved as an appropriate visit to be undertaken well in advance of the recent group of unlawful non-citizens. But the issue which is being raised is should a parliamentary committee be able to engage with and talk to unlawful non-citizens before a range of issues are dealt with?

Now, essentially, unlawful non-citizens when they are first detained are held in separation detention - whether the committee was there or not they would not have been allowed to engage with or meet with the detainees.

There are issues that need to be dealt with including health, there are interviews that need to take place to establish where people are from, their identity and there are questions that need to be looked at as to whether or not they engage protection. And it is not a question of allowing anybody, whether it's Members of Parliament or lawyers or human rights organisations or advocates to engage with them at this point in the process, that does not happen.

It's not permitted under the law and it wouldn't have happened in relation to Senator Bartlett whom I assume is complaining that he may have been required to join the flight that was leaving before the people actually arrived.

Journalist: But nevertheless, they were told that the ship was going to be another day out from arriving and lo and behold it turns up an hour later. Is there a conspiracy to have kept these people away?

Mr Ruddock: No. Obviously there's no conspiracy but I mean the issue is one of which I say very, very clearly they would not have been allowed to engage with the unlawful non-citizens whether they'd been there or not, that's the simple proposition and it wouldn't have made one iota of difference. I don't know what the operational issues are in relation to the Canberra, I assume it was going to get there as quickly as it could and I don't know what information they had at Christmas Island about when it was likely to arrive but it's irrelevant to the question of whether they would have been permitted access. They would not have been permitted access.

Journalist: The committee says that the conditions on the island are not suitable to hold these people?

Mr Ruddock: The committee says?

Journalist: Apparently, well, yeah.

Mr Ruddock: Or Senator Bartlett says?

Journalist: He represents the committee.

Mr Ruddock: No, he doesn't. He's a member of it.

Journalist: Okay.

Mr Ruddock: I simply say that in relation to Christmas Island, the operations there held a large number of detainees at the end of last year and in the early parts of this year; they were processed, those who had an entitlement to protection got it, those who didn't were removed and we would hope to be able to deal with this group of people reasonably quickly. This is not a situation where I would hope that people would be in long-term detention but, of course, that will be largely organised by those who advocate on their behalf and those who will seek access later on and the nature of the claims that they seek to bring and the challenges that they might make, I can't predict where that will go but I would still hope that it can be done quickly.

Journalist: Do you believe that the Christmas Island facilities can hold people for say, six months or more?

Mr Ruddock: Well they have and they initially were operating on a basis that we would not keep people there. We brought facilities to the island which were installed and are operational and these people are being held in those facilities.

Journalist: Minister, they were talking about in the papers today that they should have been taken straight to Port Hedland?

Mr Ruddock: Yeah look, the reason that I took the decision and I announced yesterday that the question of processing when you're in the Migration Zone is a question of law, doesn't matter where it's undertaken but it is a question of law as to how it has to be undertaken. And so, if they're in the Migration Zone there is a particular framework of law that applies and it will apply but in relation to where that processing is undertaken, as long as it is within the jurisdiction, that is not a matter that is determined other than operationally. I mean people can't say look, I want to be processed in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Brisbane, I mean that's not the issue. It's a question of where it is convenient for us to detain people.

The reason we want them detained at Christmas Island is that we've made it very clear that we are not about having people who are unlawful non-citizens landed in Australia if we can stop it and this is a situation in which they were apprehended at sea, it may have been in the Migration Zone because it was technically in the Port Hedland port, that may dictate the process but as far as we're concerned, this is not a situation where we think it is desirable that these people are seen to have been brought to Australia.

I mean there is a lot of optics in relation to this in the region, how it is seen amongst people who may be contemplating trafficking people and there may well be people who would like to see our border protection unwound, large numbers of asylum seekers accessing Australia and that that's the best way to deal with refugee issues: it's not the Government's view. The Government's view is that we ought to be able to choose amongst the most vulnerable refugees in camps abroad about who needs protection and who ought to be brought to Australia and that that choice should not be made by people smugglers. And so, the position is quite clear, anything that we can do to ensure that people understand that we're going to deal with these issues resolutely will be undertaken.

Journalist: Isn't it a waste of Navy resources to drag these people out to Christmas Island when you could have dropped them straight into Port Hedland?

Mr Ruddock: Well, the point I'm making is that if you want to send a signal abroad that Australia is open for business again, just take the easy option.

Journalist: So, there's no regrets that--

Mr Ruddock: None at all.

Journalist: (inaudible) million dollars were spent?

Mr Ruddock: Well look, I don't know that you can use figures like that, people pluck figures out of the air if it suits their convenience. A lot of what will happen in relation to this matter will be determined by the amount of time that we have to

detain people, the processes that they go through, the findings that are made and the extent to which people want to challenge those decisions.

Journalist: What's the next stage for these people?

Mr Ruddock: The first decision that has to be taken is a decision as to whether or not people are presenting with claims of a character that need to be examined. If they are, then they enter into a processing stream in which the Department of Immigration makes the decision as to whether or not they have a protection need.

We provide assistance if they do not have their own legal advisers to help them mount those claims. At that point in time, if they are rejected again, they can appeal the decision to the Refugee Review Tribunal and if they're rejected, that should be the end of the matter but what we know from experience is that for many it's not the end of the matter if they have advocates who want to pursue claims in extremis and many of those people who come to Australia without lawful authority do.

Journalist: Minister, where they were spotted, are they given more legal rights? I mean what's, what is the process--

Mr Ruddock: If you are in the Migration Zone, the processing has to be in accordance with the Migration Act; if you are outside the Migration Zone, in an excised area or outside the Migration Zone, any processing is undertaken against your international obligations and there is no requirement to follow the procedures outlined in the Migration Act which provide for departmental consideration, a review by the Refugee Review Tribunal and further possibilities of appeal in relation to the lawfulness of those decisions.

The decisions are taken administratively if you are outside the Migration Zone and it can be the UNHCR, as it was in relation to people at Manus Island or Nauru, or it can be by departmental officials and there is no access to tribunals and no access to judicial review of those decisions.

Journalist: But the decision on whether they were in that zone still needs to be made, doesn't it?

Mr Ruddock: No. I announced yesterday that the advice given to me I think at about half past 12 was that they were within the Migration Zone. I mean it was a matter that had to be the subject of detailed consideration by officials to look at what the law said in relation to that matter and to establish precisely what the facts were. And I was advised early yesterday afternoon that officials had established that this vessel was within the Migration Zone.

Journalist: Will the processing by expedited or (inaudible)--?

Mr Ruddock: Oh look, I think processing probably can take place more quickly now than we have seen in recent times and one reason is that the numbers of people who have been processed are well down. I mean one of the successes that we've had without boat arrivals and with the resolution way in which we've dealt with these issues is that fewer people have been making asylum claims, I think this year it was down to 5000. If you look at that figure which is well down on the 12 and 13,000 that we were experiencing, you can see that resources now are more readily available than they have been in the recent past and so, in that sense, save the time that it takes advisers, if they are making claims and we don't know yet that they will, but if they are making claims save the time that it takes advisers, we ought to be able to give people fairly quick decisions. OK. See you all.


5 July 2003