7 July 2009
Radio National Breakfast interview with Steve Cannane
Subjects: People smuggling, Malaysia, China.
STEVE CANNANE: The Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister were both in Malaysia yesterday, where Australia has pledged to help the country tighten its border, and help tackle people smuggling in the region.
Almost all asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat have used Malaysia as a staging post and Malaysia admits its long sea borders are, quote, porous.
The Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, joins us now, very early in the morning, from Kuala Lumpur. Good morning, Minister.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, Steve.
STEVE CANNANE: What is Australia offering Malaysia to tackle people smuggling, is it information-sharing, or actual disruption of vessels, what kind of thing?
STEPHEN SMITH: When it comes to disruption, that obviously goes to intelligence and operational matters, so I won't be drawn on that detail. But I think it's really at two levels.
Firstly, it's the policy level,. We've agreed we want to continue and indeed enhance our very close relationship at the policy level - if you like, at the Prime Ministerial and Ministerial level - that people smuggling and human trafficking is a problem for both countries, a problem for our region and we have to address it through co-operation bilaterally but also regionally through the so-called Bali Process, of which we recently held a ministerial-level meeting in Bali for the first time in four or five years.
But then secondly at operational level, whether it's immigration co-operation, whether it's customs or border patrol, whether it is intelligence gathering, whether it's defence cooperation, all of these things are operationally very important and we've agreed at every level that we'll enhance those, including our Defence chiefs having conversations about whether there's more that we can do on the ground.
STEVE CANNANE: What's in it for Malaysia to tighten its borders?
STEPHEN SMITH: Both the Prime Minister and my counterpart, made it very clear yesterday, privately and publicly, that Malaysia doesn't want to be regarded as a country which has lax immigration procedures, or a country through which people can transit at their own whim. They want to have borders and immigration systems which have integrity to them, so they don't simply want to be regarded as a country through which other people can transit or passage at their own leisure.
STEVE CANNANE: Is it just about enhancing their reputation, or is there something else in it for them?
STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly, Malaysia is a significant country in our region. I think in some respects that's often under-appreciated. Malaysia, for example, is our third largest trading partner in ASEAN and our 11th largest trading partner overall. We have a very long-standing historical relationship with Malaysia, with very important engagements both on Defence co-operation for a long period of time and also economically and in education, so it is Malaysia's view of itself being a significant country in our region. But also no country wants to regard itself as not having integrity to its immigration system, or to its people movement system.
STEVE CANNANE: How do you ensure that cracking down on people smuggling in Malaysia, doesn't become cracking down on refugees because Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Migration Convention, therefore, it has no obligation to protect refugees?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think there are a couple of issues there. Firstly, we know what is causing the recent flow of people towards Australia has been the very significant push factors that we've seen in parts of the world, indeed parts of our region. So whether it's serious peace and security issues in Afghanistan or the Afghanistan/Pakistan border area, or indeed more recently in Sri Lanka, it's these difficulties that are causing hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, to be displaced and to look further afield.
The only way we can deal with that is really at two levels, trying to deal with the peace and security issues at source, which is one of the reasons we are, for example, active and interested in Afghanistan and Pakistan but also dealing together, as countries in the region, to try and manage the flow.
So far as Australia is concerned, we want to, and do, satisfy our international domestic legal obligations so far as refugees and immigration is concerned and we look to other countries to also satisfy those domestic and international legal obligations.
STEVE CANNANE: Are you concerned though that they are not a signatory to the UN Migration Convention?
STEPHEN SMITH: That's a matter obviously for Malaysia itself. In our own case we are obviously a long-standing signatory to the convention and we conduct ourselves accordingly and we look to our neighbours and partners in the region to do likewise.
But whether Malaysia in the future becomes a signatory to the convention is of course a matter for Malaysia and there are, for example, other countries in our region who are also not parties to the convention. Ultimately it's a matter for each individual country.
STEVE CANNANE: On Radio National Breakfast, it's a quarter to eight. We're talking to the Foreign Minister Stephen Smith who's on the line from Kuala Lumpur.
Minister, did the Malaysians indicate to you how many asylum seekers are in Malaysia and how many may want to make the trip to Australia?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, no. We've seen speculation about numbers in the past, which we don't necessarily place any weight on or speculate ourselves.
STEVE CANNANE: That speculation was 10,000 asylum seekers in Malaysia.
STEPHEN SMITH: I've seen a variety of figures and I don't join in the speculation. What I say is this - that the Australian Government has been saying for some time that we know the very significant push factors are causing people in our region, large numbers of people in our region to look further afield. Whether those push factors come from Afghanistan or Pakistan or previously Iraq, or more recently Sri Lanka, we're not so much concerned about trying to identify a hypothetical number but making sure we're doing all of the things at a policy level to protect Australia's interests.
STEVE CANNANE: So you didn't ask your counterpart how many he believes are awaiting to come to Australia?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think all of that is highly speculative. And also I don't know that if you chose to do that exhaustive assessment whether you'd actually get an accurate figure in any event.
STEVE CANNANE: It is highly speculative but if you recognise it as a problem you must want to know what the extent of the problem is.
STEPHEN SMITH: What we recognise as a problem is we know there were very significant push factors causing people to look further afield and to look at Australia. That means we have to have policy responses in place to deal with that problem. And that's really at two levels - making sure that in our own case we have, we have appropriate border protection measures, which we have. We've enhanced those from those which the previous government, the Howard Government had. But secondly, we have to work very closely and carefully with all of the countries in our region.
In a recent historical period, that very good and close co-operation we've seen with Indonesia, but we now need to make sure that the sorts of things we've been doing with Indonesia for the last half dozen years or so, we also do with other countries in the region, including Malaysia, including Thailand, also including Sri Lanka and that's, if you like, one of the reasons why you've seen a significant effort on the part of the Government in the recent period to do that and that's reflected by the Prime Minister's visit and my visit to Malaysia itself.
STEVE CANNANE: According to a report from the US State Department, corrupt Malaysian officials are a problem here - reports that they've sold Burmese refugees to people traffickers or forced them into prostitution or slave labour unless they pay for their freedom.
How do you ensure that if Australia is dealing with Malaysian officials in disruption activities that Australia is not a part of those kind of activities - activities that I think the Prime Minister has described as the lowest form of life?
STEPHEN SMITH: At two levels. Firstly, our activity is aimed against the people smugglers themselves, the people who prey upon other people in difficulty. That's the first point.
Secondly, just as we discharge our domestic and legal international obligations, so we look to other countries to discharge theirs appropriately well. But for example, when it comes to difficulties in our region - and we're not the only country facing difficulty - if for example you look at the difficulties caused by the movement of the Rohingya people - either from or through Burma towards Thailand and Malaysia - there have been difficulties in the past. And when we see those difficulties we raise our concerns, as we did recently, throughout our region, with difficulties associated with the movement of the Rohingya people.
And, whether it's people from Afghanistan coming to Australia, or movements of the Rohingyas themselves, one of the very good things about Australia and Indonesia recently effectively restarting the ministerial level meetings of the Bali Process is that the now ad-hoc group which arose out of that Bali meeting a couple of months ago, is now dealing with each of these difficulties on a regional basis and applying ourselves accordingly.
STEVE CANNANE: In Indonesia, people smuggling isn't even a criminal offence. That though that may be about to change. Is it a crime to smuggle people in Malaysia?
STEPHEN SMITH: The law in Malaysia is that human trafficking is a crime. In Malaysian law there's a difference between human trafficking where the person who is moved isn't moved with consent - which is of course distinct from people smuggling, where people move with consent.
We've made the point to Malaysia, just as we have to other countries in our region, that it's preferable for what we would describe as people smuggling to be an offence against their domestic jurisdiction.
Indonesia is moving in that direction, and we've made the same point to Malaysia.
Having said that, we are very pleased with the co-operation that we're getting both from Indonesia over a number of years and now also very pleased with the cooperation and the enhanced co-operation that we're receiving from Malaysia.
So we're very pleased with the joint efforts that we're making on that front.
STEVE CANNANE: Minister, briefly on another issue - the Indonesian presidential elections get underway tomorrow. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is seeking another term. And he's credited with bringing economic and political stability to Indonesia.
What's your assessment of his presidency?
STEPHEN SMITH: It would be inappropriate for me to do an assessment publicly of his Presidency over the last period, when he's a candidate tomorrow for another election.
The election of course is very significant. It follows on from the very successful parliamentary elections that we saw in April.
Indonesia is the third largest democracy after India and the United States, so, a well run, successful, democratic Presidential election is of course very important.
But, from Australia's perspective we will work closely with whichever of the presidential candidates the Indonesian election system sees emerge.
The relationship with Indonesia frankly has never been better and is one of our most important relationships. And irrespective of who wins the presidential election in the next couple of days, or in September, if there's a re-run, we will work very closely with.
STEVE CANNANE: And just finally, and briefly, the reports of a crackdown on the Uighur's in the north of China. At least 156 people are being reported to have been killed, more than a thousand injured. This is concerning, but yet again with China, the world watches by, but doesn't seem to be able to influence the outcome.
STEPHEN SMITH: We've seen those reports. We're obviously not in the position verify it, but we are very concerned by what we've seen publicly.
Importantly, we're not aware of any Australians being involved. But like the rest of the international community, we are concerned by those reports of violence in Xinjang province and we'll continue, as the international community is doing, to monitor the situation closely.
Of course we're very concerned about the tragic loss of life. And we will continue as the international community is doing to make, as appropriately, points to China about human rights and the treatment of people in China.
STEVE CANNANE: Stephen Smith, thanks a lot for getting up early in Kuala Lumpur to talk to us.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it's Perth time Steve, so I'm used to it. But thanks very much.
STEVE CANNANE: [Laughs] okay. Thank you.
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