14 April 2009, Perth
Joint press conference with Minister for Immigration, Chris Evans; Minister for Home Affairs, Bob Debus
Subjects: Bali Process; Thailand, DPRK, Fiji, Asylum Seekers, Rohingyas, Sri Lanka, Australians detained in Papua
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much for coming along this morning. I'm very pleased to be here with my Western Australian colleague, Chris Evans, the Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister for Immigration; and also my New South Wales colleague, Bob Debus, the Minister for Home Affairs.
Later this morning we'll be leaving Perth, travelling to Bali, Indonesia, to take part in the third Ministerial meeting of the Bali Process or more formally, the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons, and Related Transnational Crime.
The Bali Process was established in 2002. There have been two previous Ministerial meetings. The last one was in 2003.
It's co-chaired by Australia and Indonesia, and so at the meeting in Bali today and tomorrow, my Foreign Ministerial colleague, Hassan Wirajuda and I will co-chair the meeting. The Australian delegation will be led by Senator Evans as Minister for Immigration.
This third Ministerial meeting of the Bali Process has been called effectively at Australia and Indonesia's request, to ensure the maximum possible regional cooperation, so far as combating people smuggling, people trafficking, and illegal human movement is concerned.
We of course know that very many so-called push factors operate in the modern day; and we need to work in close cooperation with our partners in the region, in South East Asia, with Indonesia in particular, to combat people movement and people smuggling.
One of the issues that we'll be discussing at the conference will be one of the more recent regional problems that has arisen: the issue of the Rohingyas. And so Foreign Minister Wirajuda and I, together with our Burmese and Thai colleagues, will be having a conversation about the Rohingyas issue which you would remember came to public prominence in the course of this year.
So having set the scene I'll ask Senator Evans to make some remarks, and then Minister Debus to make some remarks, and then we're happy to respond to your questions on the Bali Process or other matters that are of interest this morning.
CHRIS EVANS: Thanks Stephen.
We're very pleased that this Bali Process is going to go ahead. We've been focused on reinvigorating the Process for the last year.
Mr Debus and I travelled through South East Asia last year encouraging people to reinvigorate the Bali Process and to participate. We've found a great deal of interest in doing that, and, so this meeting coming together is a sign of that interest.
I think it reflects a growing awareness inside the region that irregular people movement is going to be a large and growing issue for the region in coming years.
We've seen an increase in numbers of people moving irregularly through the region. We've seen the push factors out of Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka, and other nations, and Bangladesh; where we've seen our neighbours dealing with these problems. And we've had to deal with those problems as people sought to seek asylum in Australia as well.
The beauty about this conference is that people who are source, transit, and destination countries will all be represented. And, the leadership of Indonesia is important. I've met with their Immigration Minister, Mr Mattalatta, on four occasions, and he is focused, as we are, on finding common approaches to the irregular movement of people through the region.
The cooperation of Indonesia with the Australian Government has been first rate. They have assisted us in attempting to break up people smuggling rings, to try and combat the irregular movement through the region. And we're looking to extend that cooperation, both with Indonesia and with other neighbouring countries.
And they, of course, are also dealing with their own problems, as Mr Smith indicated, such as the movement of Rohingyas and others in quite large numbers.
So I think there's an agreed focus in the region to deal with these issues.
There's also enormous issues of people trafficking, which Mr Debus has been leading on.
So we think this Process will be really useful in refocusing attention and combining in our efforts to deal with what is a serious, and at the moment growing problem in the region. And we think this will allow us to develop strategies to work with our neighbours to try and combat these problems.
Maybe Bob wants to say a few words.
BOB DEBUS: Thank you. I would just emphasise what my colleagues have said with respect to the, the character of the problem of people smuggling, and indeed people trafficking.
These are regional problems. They cannot be resolved by one country alone. They can only be dealt with satisfactorily by widespread cooperation between the authorities in countries that are source countries and countries that are transit countries and those that are destination countries.
I should say too that there will nevertheless be no diminution in the effort that Australia puts in to restraining, interrupting, and detecting attempts at people smuggling.
It's worth emphasising, I think, that the assets that we apply to this purpose - the naval vessels and the customs vessels and the coast watch aeroplanes and the RAAF aeroplanes, and the now better coordinated intelligence and administrative arrangements that exist within the Australian Government continue to be directed to the restraint of people smuggling where ever that is attempted.
At the same time, I think it's very important to keep the issue in perspective.
Last year in Italy they had 35,000 entrants who had been brought to Italian shores by people smugglers; Greece had 15,000. In the not too distant past, Australia has had more than 6,000 people. That's the kind of context perhaps we should be thinking about the present arrivals in.
Nevertheless, no doubt you'll all have some questions of one or more of us.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Bob.
Alright, just before we take questions; I should have mentioned of course that, and it's the point that Senator Evans and Bob have both made, is that countries represented at the conference include those countries from where we have displaced peoples; those countries who are transit countries and those countries who are destination countries.
Some 40 to 50 countries and international organisations will be represented, including the International Organisation for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, two of the premier international institutions so far as these matters are concerned.
So, we're happy to respond to your questions on these matters, or other matters.
QUESTION: Minister, has the seven-year hiatus between the last meeting and this meeting contributed to the people smuggling and arrivals do you think?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well certainly, in our discussions, particularly with Indonesia, we've made the point that the regional cooperation and regional integration of effort is very important; and Australia took the view that it was time to have the Bali Process reconvened at Ministerial level.
There have of course in the interim been meetings at officer levels. So it's not as if there hasn't been ongoing application to regional coordination.
But, because we do see this as an ongoing issue, an ongoing problem, an ongoing difficulty, it's absolutely essential to make sure that at the highest levels these issues are understood. And there is cooperation, not just nation to nation, or government to government, but also relevant agency to relevant agency. Whether that is police or Customs or border patrol or indeed intelligence agencies for disruption purposes.
I'm happy for Bob or Chris to add.
QUESTION: Regarding Thailand, should the King get involved do you think in the crisis over there?
STEPHEN SMITH: We want to see these matters resolved by and through the Thai democratic and political process.
And I've made the point earlier today; we certainly don't want to see any military intervention which goes beyond the military respecting the Thai constitution and taking care of law and order matters consistent with Thai constitution and Thai laws.
The King is very well respected and regarded in Thailand, in Thai society and Thai culture. And in the past, when these difficult issues have confronted the Thai political system, he has from time to time made comments or let his views be known. That's entirely a matter for him and entirely a matter for the Thai system.
QUESTION: So you don't, you won't comment as to whether or not you think that he should use his persuasion in this respect?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's entirely a matter for the King; and entirely a matter for him to make his judgements about the appropriateness of him making his views known in the face of the current difficult and volatile situation in Thailand.
QUESTION: What are you thoughts on the UN statement on the North Korean rocket launch?
STEPHEN SMITH: We support it very much. The declaration effectively reaffirms United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718. It makes the point that the North Korean missile launch was in breach of UNSC Resolution 1718, which Australia has strongly supported.
When you deal with that breach in conjunction with North Korea's ongoing recalcitrance on their nuclear program, you see the danger and the concern which confronts the international community.
So we strongly support what's come out of the Security Council overnight.
QUESTION: On a different issue - could we just get a comment where Australia is at on Fiji at the moment?
STEPHEN SMITH: We condemn absolutely recent events in Fiji.
Commodore Bainimarama has essentially appointed himself as a self-appointed dictator, a military dictator. This is very regressive for Fiji. We believe that unless and until Fiji returns to democracy, we'll continue to see a deterioration in Fiji's economic and social circumstances.
QUESTION: Has the time come for Fiji to be evicted from the Commonwealth?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the Commonwealth, through the Commonwealth Ministerial Advisory Group which met in London in February-March earlier this year, and the Pacific Island Forum, which met the leaders who met in Papua New Guinea, met in Port Moresby in January this year, have both effectively resolved that unless Fiji puts itself on a road to democracy on the timetable set out by the Pacific Island Forum, Fiji can expect to be suspended from the forums of both the Pacific Island Forum and the Commonwealth.
And given what has occurred in recent days, unless there is some dramatic reversal of that, it is in my view almost inevitable that Fiji will be suspended both from the Pacific Island Forum and from the Commonwealth itself.
QUESTION: What's the time frame for that Mr Smith? When would that be likely to occur [indistinct]?
STEPHEN SMITH: The time frame set by the Pacific Island Forum communiqué was to see that by 1 May this year, Fiji had taken genuine steps to move towards democracy.
Not only have we not seen any genuine steps, we've seen very regressive conduct on the part of Commodore Bainimarama and his regime. The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group which met in London in February-March effectively put the Commonwealth on the same timetable.
QUESTION: In terms of applying more pressure to Fiji, have you considered what form that might take?
STEPHEN SMITH: Australia currently has sanctions against Fiji. We are effectively at the forefront of sanctions. We have travel sanctions against members of the regime. We also have restrictions on Ministerial contact with Fiji interim Government Ministers. We also have a ban on defence contact, and we have restrictions on development assistance.
In the meantime, of course, we have continued to apply humanitarian assistance; and we have endeavoured to target our sanctions and our policy approach to putting pressure on the regime. We don't want to do things which would have an adverse impact on the people of Fiji themselves. Which is why, for example, we haven't and don't contemplate trade sanctions and the like.
We're in discussion as we speak with our partners in the Pacific, members of the Pacific Island Forum, also the UN and the Commonwealth, to see what more, if any, pressure can be brought to bear by the international community on the regime. But Australia and New Zealand have both been at the forefront in terms of the sanctions that are currently imposed.
QUESTION: Just returning to asylum seekers, can I ask Mr Evans [indistinct]?
STEPHEN SMITH: Sure.
QUESTION: What cooperation will the delegation ask of the Indonesian Government in terms of, will you be asking them to increase presence at the departure points or harbours where recent asylum seeker boats have been leaving from?
CHRIS EVANS: We've had tremendous cooperation with the Indonesians for a number of years on those issues. Their local police are cooperating with Australian authorities in trying to prevent departures. There have been a large number of successful interruptions.
What we've been dealing with in the last few years is a change in tactics which has required us to divert more resources and adopt some different approaches, but the Indonesian cooperation has been very good.
What we've seen, though, is a large number of Afghans, in particular, moving through the region, both in Indonesia and Malaysia and other countries, and certainly they've been the source of most of the unauthorised arrivals in recent times. But the Indonesians are making huge efforts to cooperate.
We've improved our immigration, the cooperation with them by significant resources in recent times, and their cooperation, as I say, can't be faulted, but we are dealing with some new tactics.
We are dealing with quite strong push factors out of Afghanistan and Iraq and Sri Lanka, and one of the things we've been seeking to do is to work with them to see if we can't improve their domestic legal arrangements. They currently don't have in our view enough capacity to prosecute people smugglers in Indonesia.
And one of the things that's on the agenda for the Bali process is more common approaches to legal frameworks to ensure we can deal with people smugglers and people traffickers under the law, across the region; that we have this more common approach so as to deal with the threat which is multinational.
QUESTION: The most recent arrivals that came this last week, do you know what stage the process is at with those - with that group of suspected asylum seekers at Christmas Island?
CHRIS EVANS: Well, they will be interviewed under the normal processes. As you know, we've retained mandatory detention of all those arriving unauthorised. They'll have health, security, and identity checks, and as part of that process, be interviewed by immigration but also by the AFP, so that we get as much information as to who they are, how they came to seek to enter Australia. As I say, they undergo the normal health and security checks, as well as being mandatorily detained to tell those checks have been completed.
QUESTION: Is our ocean surveillance adequate though, when a boatload of people can pull up at a jetty at Christmas Island?
CHRIS EVANS: I'll let Mr Debus answer that question; I think probably best, I think.
QUESTION: Has an inquiry been launched into that particular incident?
CONVENER: Well, just let him answer the first one.
BOB DEBUS: Obviously we are attempting to discover more about the exact circumstances of the arrival of that boat.
But let's be clear, as I mentioned before, we actually have somewhat more Naval, Customs, and Air Force activity now than existed, say, in the latter years of the Howard Government; it all coordinated through what is called Border Protection Command.
But you're dealing with a quite massive area of ocean and coastline. You think the world's largest archipelago, the vast coastline of Australia, and all the ocean in between, and our surveillance is inevitably and properly informed by intelligence. You can't expect that every boat or every square kilometre of the sea will always be covered.
Our surveillance is guided by intelligence, intelligence that comes through our own authorities and through Indonesian authorities. And the essential point is that we protect the Australian mainland, that we protect our own border. Don't forget that Christmas Island is still more than 1000 kilometres away from Australia.
QUESTION: But has an inquiry been launched into that particular incident?
BOB DEBUS: We are making a number of inquiries at the moment, we're investigating the matter. There is not a formal inquiry. There is an investigation of the circumstances.
QUESTION: Does that particular incident highlight a failure in our border security?
BOB DEBUS: I think I just answered that particular question.
QUESTION: We've had three boatloads arrive in the past few weeks; do you have any information to suggest more on their way?
BOB DEBUS: We know that the numbers of boats that are launched, the number of attempts that there are at people smuggling, is most affected by what my colleagues have been referring to as push factors.
If you have more difficulty in the circumstances of the population of Sri Lanka, or Afghanistan, or Pakistan, which is what we have, then you must expect that there will be within a relatively short time more attempts by people to reach a country of preferred destination like Australia.
I emphasise again that the numbers of people attempting to arrive by boat in Australia is still very small by international standards, and it's very small even by our own historical standards. We must be concerned. We will not diminish the level of surveillance and interdiction that we are presently engaged in. But you must keep the actual numbers in some kind of perspective.
QUESTION: Has the [indistinct] of the Pacific Solution increased the numbers?
BOB DEBUS: I don't think that changes in Australian Government policy, important as they have been from the point of view of compassionate treatment of refugees, have had any particular effect one way or other, on the numbers of people that are attempting to arrive unauthorised by boat. You just have to look at history to know that's the case.
For instance, when the Howard Government introduced Temporary Protection Visas, and you'll recall that the Opposition has in recent times, several times, suggested that the abandonment of Temporary Protection Visas was some kind of an incentive for people smugglers and their clients, when the Howard Government actually introduced Temporary Protection Visas, the numbers of unauthorised entrants went up a lot.
The truth is that the so-called push factors, events in other places, are far more important than Australian Government policy in determining the numbers of people who will attempt to arrive here without authorisation.
And that is the very reason why we are all going to Bali now to attempt to make improvements in the regional responses to the problems of people movement.
QUESTION: Will you be requesting Thailand [indistinct] the Rohingya people and you know, the towing them out to sea [indistinct]?
BOB DEBUS: I think it's appropriate that the Minister of Foreign Affairs should answer that question, rather than the person responsible for internal policies here.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks.
That'll be the subject of conversation at the Bali Process meeting. But you might recall when Foreign Minister Wirajuda was in Australia recently in Sydney, he and I made it clear that we both wanted that item discussed at the Bali Process.
As Senator Evans said earlier, it's one of a number of regional people movement issues and problems that the region has to confront.
Rohingyas, of course, come from Burma, from the Rakhine state in Burma. We also find Rohingyas, displaced Rohingyas in Bangladesh, and we also find them moving, in terms of a transit country, past Thailand as well. So there's an interest from a range of countries that will be represented at the Bali Process.
It will be one of a number of regional difficulties that we currently face that representatives there will be addressing.
QUESTION: With the increasing violence in Thailand, is there need now to evacuate Australians?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, our advice remains as it was yesterday. I've spoken to our Ambassador on a couple of occasions this morning. Things today are pretty much as they were late last night. Regrettably, of course, overnight there have been two confirmed, possibly three deaths, and we regret that very much.
We continue to urge Australians who are not in Bangkok to reconsider their need to travel to Bangkok. Those Australians who are in Bangkok, we continue to urge them to avoid unnecessary travel around the city, to certainly avoid demonstrations, to certainly avoid those locations where the military are based, and to certainly avoid large gatherings given that the state of emergencies effectively makes gathering of more than five people unlawful.
If they do choose or determine to leave Bangkok, then we are advising them to contact the airport and travel agents before leaving for the airport, and also to leave plenty of time to get to the airport in case their transport arrangements are disturbed. But at this stage we've got no indication that scheduled flights or the airport will in any way be disrupted.
So our advice remains that people should reconsider their need to travel to Bangkok and surrounding provinces. But if they are in Bangkok they should be sensible and careful about their movements around the city; or as I've put it, anecdotally, they should think very much about staying at home or in the hotel.
QUESTION: Just quickly on the [indistinct]...
STEPHEN SMITH: Sorry, say again...
QUESTION: Just with the Tamil protesters, they're saying that 300 people were killed on Easter Sunday. Have you got any [indistinct]...
STEPHEN SMITH: I've seen that report, I can't confirm it. We have for some time been very concerned about circumstances in Sri Lanka. For some time I've been calling upon the Sri Lankan Government to engage in a political dialogue. For some time we've been calling, together with the rest of the international community, particularly the so-called Tokyo co-conveners, for there to be a cessation of hostilities, to enable civilians who are in the area of hostilities to remove themselves from the hostile areas.
There's been a considerable problem of both firing into, and from, areas where civilians are. There's also been very grave difficulties in rendering humanitarian assistance to areas where the conflict has been taking place.
We welcome very much the announcement in the last 24-48 hours by the Sri Lankan Government, by the President, that there will be a so-called holiday truce, which will enable civilians to exit areas where hostilities have been taking place. We urge the Tamil Tigers to respect that and to allow the exodus of civilians.
We've previously called upon the Tamil Tigers to lay down their arms and engage in a political dialogue, and we again do that.
It's a terrible situation in Sri Lanka; we have become increasingly concerned, as has the rest of the international community.
When I was in The Hague recently for the Afghanistan conference, I met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon; we discussed these matters. We strongly support his recent comments and his recent efforts and we continue to urge all of those things both upon the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil Tigers.
There was one up the back, I think.
QUESTION: What's the - Minister, what's the latest - the status of the five Australians still trapped in West Papua?
STEPHEN SMITH: They remain under what is called city detention in Merauke. Their sentencing is still subject to appeal to the Indonesian Supreme Court. As I understand it they are currently residing in home accommodation in Merauke. We have a consular officer available to render assistance.
My most recent advice is that they are all well, but of course they are becoming increasingly frustrated, as are we, at the time that is has taken, and is taking, to resolve these matters. But unfortunately they are subject to Indonesian legal processes and that is currently an appeal before the Indonesia Supreme Court on their sentencing. We simply have to wait until that legal process is completed.
QUESTION: Because they were originally ordered to leave [indistinct].
STEPHEN SMITH: They were sentenced in the first instance. They appealed to the Jayapura District Court; the Jayapura District Court essentially quashed their sentencing and effectively ordered their deportation.
Before they were either deported or left Indonesia, the prosecutor instituted an appeal to the Indonesian Supreme Court that effectively stays the decision of the Jayapura District Court. And as a consequence they are currently in what is described, as I've said, as home, sorry, as city detention in Merauke where they will remain until the legal processes have been exhausted and completed.
QUESTION: Just getting back to the asylum seekers, just calling on Senator Evans...
STEPHEN SMITH: Chris.
QUESTION: ... has it been confirmed that these latest arrivals are Iraqis? Do you still imagine that they're seeking asylum?
CHRIS EVANS: What I can say at the moment is that they seem to be mainly from the Middle East and may well be a group of Iraqis and Afghans. But I can't confirm that until interviews have been completed. But I want to give as much information as possible, and it's likely that they'll be largely Iraqi and Afghans. But until the interviews are completed it's not possible to give definitive information.
QUESTION: Are those as... are those asylum seekers being fast-tracked, as you've mentioned before wanting to fast-track through the processing, I guess, process [laughs]? Is that happening in - on Christmas Island?
CHRIS EVANS: Fast-track's probably not the right word. They are being given the normal health, security and identity checks. They are mandatorily detained in Christmas Island until those checks are completed. If they then make application for protection, they go through the established processes.
If you're asking me, do we leave people rotting on Nauru and deny them legal process, no, we changed that.
But they are assessed as to whether or not they are owed Australia's protection under international law. If they are owed our protection, then they're granted that and re-settled in Australia.
If they're not owed our protection, we seek to return them to the country of origin. Those are our obligations under international law, and we meet those obligations.
QUESTION: But can you confirm whether they are in fact asylum seekers? Have they been - been asked [indistinct]?
CHRIS EVANS: Well, the very purpose of the last answer was to say that the processes will determine whether they're asylum seekers, and as yet they haven't been identified and interviewed. If those processes are completed, then they may seek asylum.
But obviously there are issues about getting interpreters to the island, establishing what language they speak, et cetera. So, those things take a while. But the initial interviews will continue, then people will indicate whether they want to seek asylum and then those processes flow from that.
QUESTION: So is there anything you can tell us about why they came to Australia and perhaps why - or tried to come to Australia - and perhaps why they came right up to the jetty at Christmas Island, they had a GPS navigation [indistinct]?
CHRIS EVANS: What I can say is that we haven't finished interviewing them yet, so I can't give you details about their motivations. But previous boat arrivals over the years have been from people seeking an asylum in this country, so it's not unreasonable to assume that the latest boat arrivals would also be seeking asylum.
In terms of their transportation, the reality is there are more sophisticated means of people smuggling occurring and one of the things we've found is some of these. Some of these boats have been of better quality and had slightly larger numbers than those that arrived say, last year. And particular, one of the departures from Sri Lanka last year had quite sophisticated positioning equipment et cetera.
But clearly, as Mr Debus indicated, it's a shorter trip to Christmas Island for those departing from some departure points in Indonesia, than say to head for Ashmore Reef. So we've had over the years boats head for both Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef; there's nothing particularly unusual, other than, as you say, this boat was able to get into Christmas Island near the jetty before being detected.
But, as I say, we've had arrivals in the past that have sought to land at Christmas Island.
QUESTION: You talk about how the aim is to get them to keep away from the mainland, but [indistinct] on Christmas Island are saying that they - their island should be used for this purpose and they're quite frustrated by the recent arrivals and given that it's [indistinct] island, what would you say to [indistinct]?
CHRIS EVANS: I think you ought not take the views of one person being reported as being the views of Christmas Island. So, that's the first point I make, I'm sure there's a diversity of opinion.
But I've been to Christmas Island and met with community leaders in recent times and they understand the processes, they understand why we're using the detention facilities on Christmas Island. And to be frank, many of them appreciate that it's the largest economic activity, apart from the mine, occurring on the island,and you'll have many Christmas Islanders tell you that they appreciate the fact that there is that economic activity on the island.
So, certainly the islanders have concerns which we seek to address and we stay in close contact with them about any community concerns. But it is also the case that many of them recognise that there's increased economic activity on the island as a result of the detention.
And as you know, Christmas Island has been used for detention purposes for unauthorised arrivals for many years, and the previous Howard Government spent the only large investment on detention facilities - $400 million - on the facility at Christmas Island; that's where the big investment in detention was made and that's where our major capacity now resides.
CONVENER: Last questions, thanks.
STEPHEN SMITH: Are you right? Otherwise we'll miss the plane. Thanks very much.
CHRIS EVANS: Thanks you. Cheers.
BOB DEBUS: Cheers. Thanks.
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