Warning on Australian immigration border control | Asia Pacific

Warning on Australian immigration border control

Warning on Australian immigration border control

Updated 6 January 2012, 10:40 AEDT

A former Australian immigration minister has fuelled the country's volatile debate on people smuggling and asylum seekers arriving by boat.

Philip Ruddock says the Australian government has lost control of Australia's borders, that Indonesia won't and can't do all Australia wants to stop boat arrivals and that 10,000 people are waiting to be smuggled to a country like Australia.

Presenter: Linda Mottram, Canberra correspondent

Kevin Rudd, Australian Prime Minister; Philip Ruddock, former Australian immigration minister; David Manne, coordinator, Refugee and Immigration Centre

MOTTRAM: A large, overcrowded wooden boat is shepherded by Indonesian military and police. Among those on board, children and women, many men, and several on stretchers. The dominant appearance was South Asian.

FX: boat fx

MOTTRAM: The boat was headed for Australian waters but Indonesian authorities intercepted it in the Sudon ? Strait, after Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd telephoned Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

RUDD: The business of diplomacy is not to go to the detail of communications with the Indonesians or with any other foreign government. That is the right way to conduct diplomacy. I repeat what I said however. I make no apology whatsoever for working as closely as I need with our Indonesian friends and partners to get the results we all need in terms of illegal immigration.

MOTTRAM: Indonesia's Foreign ministry in the meantime said the country wasn't doing Australia's bidding in turning the boat around, that people smuggling was a transnational crime and that the country acted for the good of the region.

The Australian debate was being fuelled though. A national newspaper splashed a headline, "Ruddock predicts flood of ten-thousand boat people". The article documented that more than 16-hundred people have arrived in Australian waters by boat this year. Former immigration minister Ruddock went on to give a string of media interviews in Australia. In one, he denied he was being alarmist.

RUDDOCK: I think people expect to be informed in relation to these sorts of matters and when the government's clearly lost control of our borders, you're entitled to ask what are the likely implications if we don't act.

MOTTRAM: In his various interviews, Mr Ruddock also delivered a history lesson about Australia's past efforts -- with varying success -- to use Indonesia to block smuggled asylum seekers and predicting that there'd be limits to what Indonesia would or could do on behalf of the Rudd government. Mr. Ruddock said Indonesia continued to be reticent in part because of criticism of its treatment of asylum seekers, which is often harsh.

RUDDOCK: I suspect that while Indonesia will offer co-operation, it won't be, it won't be possible for them to detain all of the people seeking to come. As I say, nothing is new, these sorts of requests were made before when the Howard government was in office and while the intentions were good, the follow up wasn't comprehensive and I suspect that that will occur again.

MOTTRAM: Mr Ruddock's intervention is the latest in an ongoing political tussle over Australian immigration policy .. with the opposition insisting, as Mr Ruddock has done, that only its tougher approach while in government was effective. The Rudd government disputes this, claiming more boats arrived under the Howard government's policies. The immigration department also points to the approximately 48-and-a-half thousand people in Australia unlawfully, usually visa overstayers, as of July last year .. overwhelmingly more than the numbers of boat arrivals but rarely the focus of political attention.

In the clamour for the high ground on the issue, refugee advocates, like Melbourne lawyer David Manne say that on the numbers, Australia is not being swamped and that the politics are overshadowing the issue of Australia's responsibilities.

MANNE: What we're looking at here is a small increase in numbers recently and overwhelmingly those who are coming here are coming from places where they're fleeing from acts of gross brutality and being found to be refugees, people who under stringent testing have been determined to be refugees who need our protection.

MOTTRAM: The political heat though is fierce, and likely to intensify, particularly as the main offshore Australian detention facility for boat arrivals, at Christmas Island, nears capacity, and with news amidst all this debate that Australian officials had intercepted yet another boat.

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