September 24, 2013
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison says the Government does not plan to publicly reveal when or if any asylum seeker boats are turned around – a measure that is a key plank of the Coalition’s border protection policy.
The Coalition’s measures, Operation Sovereign Borders, began last week and Mr Morrison and its commander Angus Campbell held the first weekly media briefing on Monday.
The Minister says the Government will announce how many boats arrive and the numbers of asylum seekers at the briefings, but there will be no information about whether boats are turned around.
“That goes to operational matters that, whether they affect current or future operational activity, you will not be getting commentary from this podium or that podium either way on those matters,” Mr Morrison said.
“We want to make it crystal clear: operational and tactical issues that relate to current and prospective operations… will not be the subject of public commentary from these podiums.
“We will tell you what vessels have arrived and have gone into the care of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
“Those updates will be provided as well as transfers and other key policy decisions and announcements and implementation issues regarding this policy, but we are not getting into the tactical discussion of things that happen at sea.”
Under the Howard government’s Operation Relex, four asylum seeker boats were turned back to Indonesia.
Acting Opposition Leader Chris Bowen says the Government has “no excuse” not to tell the public if boats are intercepted and turned around.
“Turning back the boats has been a centrepiece of Coalition policy now for a long time,” he said.
What is Operation Sovereign Borders?
- A military-led operation headed by the Deputy Chief of Army, Angus Campbell.
- The policy allows for boats to be turned back to their country of origin.
- Refugees will be processed offshore at Nauru and PNG’s Manus Island.
- Temporary protection visas (TPV) have been reintroduced.
- The Government will deny refugee status to those believed to have destroyed their documentation.
- There are 12 departments that fall under the operation.
“They’ve told us at every opportunity that they would turn back boats where it was safe to do so.
“Now we’re seeing Mr Morrison saying we may or may not tell you if we’ve ever turned a boat back.
“This lack of transparency is completely unacceptable.”
Lieutenant General Campbell has advised the Government to hold “periodic” media briefings on asylum seeker matters “to prevent the potential for messaging to people smugglers with regards to changes to procedures or our tactical activities that might evolve over time”.
Mr Morrison says the intention is not to “keep a lid” on asylum seeker matters.
“This is an open briefing process but there are obvious limitations to what can be discussed in these forums for the protection and safety of the people who are doing our service for our nation,” he said.
He said there may be specific briefings if a boat was involved in an accident or somebody went overboard.
“If there are significant incidents that occur, then obviously a decision will be taken at that time as to what briefing will be provided,” the Minister said.
The Coalition’s policy, released in July, promises that an Abbott Government would instruct the Defence Force to “turn back boats where it is safe to do so” and to intercept “all identified vessels travelling from Sri Lanka outside our sea border”.
Morrison sets 48-hour transfer target
The Government has also announced that it is pushing ahead with its plans to expand offshore processing facilities on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
It has also cancelled plans to build a centre in Singleton in the NSW Hunter Valley, and is in the process of transferring $58 million in funding to offshore centres instead.
People who arrive by boat will also be subject to a new target of transferring them overseas within 48 hours.
Mr Morrison says once asylum seekers are deemed fit to fly, they will be sent to Nauru or Manus Island for further health checks and full processing.
“You won’t be settling in on Christmas Island if you come on a boat,” he said.
“You will find yourself very quickly and rapidly transferred by air to one of the offshore processing centres.”
But Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young says the plan could cost lives because 48 hours is not enough time to do proper medical checks.
“If we haven’t worked out whether a child is asthmatic, if we haven’t worked out whether a child has a particular health concern, we are effectively dumping that child in the middle of a deserted island with no appropriate medical assistance,” she said.
“That’s not humane.”
Hundreds already sent offshore
Earlier on Monday, Mr Morrison said hundreds of asylum seekers who had arrived by boat since the election had already been transferred.
In the past two weeks, 523 people have arrived by boat and claimed asylum in Australia.
Mr Morrison says around half of those have already left Australia’s shores for processing on either Manus Island or Nauru.
Previously the process of carrying out health and security checks has taken several weeks.
The Minister also revealed the Rudd-Gillard government had not funded its offshore processing operations on Manus Island beyond this year.
“There is not currently $1 that the previous government put in place for operations – operational funding for offshore processing at Manus Island,” he said.
“Not $1 did they fund it beyond the first of January, so that’s one of the early nasty surprises that we’ve had to deal with.”
Mr Morrison said the Abbott Government would “make sure that’s addressed” but added there was “an enormous amount of work to do to salvage that arrangement”.