Stephen Smith’s Policy Statement on Refugees in October 2009: Q and A with Amanda Hodge

Note that Stephen Smith visited Sri Lanka in late 2009 in order  encourage the SL government to restrict boats leaving. What precisely this “encouragement” amounted to is a closed book. There was a flurry of SL Navy activity at the end of 2011, but thereafter there seems to hvve been few impoundings of boats until early 2011.[subject to correction this note]. Michael Roberts

Amanda Hodge: I was travelling in Sri Lanka, there’s been new developments with the latest, people apprehended in Indonesian borders. Are we losing the battle on people smuggling or do you see this as sort of a natural consequence of what’s going on in the region?

Stephen Smith: We’ve been saying for some time, the Prime Minister, myself, Senator Evans, that there are very considerable push factors, considerable push factors out of the Afghanistan, Pakistan border area. But given the conflict in Sri Lanka, also we anticipated and expected additional strong push factors from Sri Lanka but this is not a unique problem for our region of Australia. We’ve seen large numbers of displaced people and people movements all across the world.

We’ve recognized the push factors and we’ve taken a range of steps to address or deal with those. One has been in the last Budget enhancing the border production and customs capacity with additional assets. But second, and this goes to the heart of the effort we’ve been substantially enhancing our engagement regionally with our friends and partners in the region, we resuscitated the Bali process at a Ministerial level. I chaired that in Bali, maybe six months ago, that’ll be on record but also we’ve considerably enhanced the bilateral contacts on all these points.

We’ve had a very good relationship with Indonesia for some time. But because of the strength of push factors we’ve now enhanced our engagement and activity with Malaysia for example, Sri Lanka as well. So what we’ve been doing with Indonesia for some time, we now need to bring other friends and partners in the region, the transit countries, on to the same base as we’ve got with Indonesia. We’ve been working very hard at that.

We have been saying for some time, there are very considerable push factors at play and not just Australia but our region has got to deal with these and well of course we’ve been working very closely with the relevant international agencies, the IOM.

Amanda Hodge: From a different perspective, do we have a moral responsibility to take people from our region, those who are genuine refugees?

Stephen Smith: That’s what we do. That’s the point that Senator Evans has been making which is, if people come to Australia and they’re not refugees, they’re sent back home. If they are refugees and they are processed in accordance with our international legal obligations, if they are refugees they are given that status. We are a long standing signatory to the Refugee Convention. We not just comply with our international law requirements, we regard that as an obligation to so and we do.

But, what we also have to do is, Australians and the Australian Government want to make sure there is integrity in our immigration process and that includes in our refugee process. Historically it is something which has always caused concern for Australians and for successive Australian governments. Whether it was the Fraser Government or the Hawke Government, or the movement of Vietnamese asylum seekers or the Howard government or now us.

It is the irregular movements that cause consternation both for the Australian people and for Australian Government because we want to make sure there is integrity in our immigration processes. That includes our refugee processes which is why we have always, as a nation, had a substantial on shore humanitarian refugee program through the UNHCR.

Amanda Hodge: The number of applications for student visas down substantially this third quarter from 20,000 to 11,000?

Stephen Smith: One could always expect or predict that. A couple of things on Indian students: there’ll been a down turn in the short term, and it’ll take up a bit more time to make judgments about what was the cause of the down turn. All of this has coincided with the global financial and economic crisis so that might well have an impact, generally, on numbers of students. Secondly, they’ll be the adverse publicity we’ve received as a result of the terrible attacks in Melbourne in particular. It’ll take a bit of time for that to work it’s way through the system.

What the safety issues did, though was also to throw light on some quality issues and also some actions of the immigration and education agents. So we’ve had a look very carefully at enhancing the integrity of some of those mechanisms and I think that will also see a reduction in applications and also potentially a reduction in the number of successful applications.

We’ve been working very closely with the Indian Government on that front. What we want to ensure is that when Indian students or students of any country come to Australia they get a quality educational experience. Which quite clearly, from our discussions here, from discussions with Chris Evans and Julia Gillard who’ve been here recently, that there’s been rorting in the system which has tried to utilize educational opportunities as a backdoor migration opportunity. We’ve had to restore integrity back in to the system. This will take some time to work its way through the system.

The other thing which I think is very important to accept and not to try and walk away from. Whilst the Indian authorities have been obviously concerned about the attacks they are also very understanding of the steps that we’ve taken to address them. That hasn’t gotten in the way of the bilateral relationship or the engagement between India and Australia.

It’s clearly the case that our reputation in sections of the Indian public has suffered some damage as a result of the adverse publicity. We have to accept that and we have to find ways of repairing that damage. Its not going to occur overnight and it will be a range of things which over time restores that reputation. But restoring integrity to a quality educational experience in Australia would frankly be one of those things. It remains the case that the vast bulk of Indian students who return to Australia come back home so they’ve had a worthwhile and good experience.

Amanda Hodge: On the nuclear issue, I noticed the CNN-IBN brought that up again. It’s something that keeps coming up. It’s not going to go away for the Australian Government. Regardless of the fact that we say that India understands our position, they keep needling on it, don’t they?

Stephen Smith: I get asked questions about this in the Indian media but it’s not dwelled upon my conversations with the Government and that’s because it’s invariably the case that in any relationship there will be things where you have a different view.

Australia’s position on Uranium and the NPT for a government of my persuasion is of long standing and well known. India’s attitude to the NPT is also of long standing and well known. External Affairs Minister Krishna and I spoke about this as I have with his predecessor, External Affair’s Minister Mukherjee. We didn’t dwell on it. I think it’s true to say that India acknowledges our long standing position, we acknowledge India’s long standing position, and that’s respected. Again, there’s no point to pretend. India, of course would prefer we had a different policy position. But there’s also ongoing gratitude for the fact that in the NSG and the IAEA. Australia played a very positive and constructive role, in helping to form a consensus for the India US Civil Nuclear Agreement.

Amanda Hodge: On that agreement, Gareth Evans was here last week, or the week before as you know. In the press conference and as I understand, in the plenary sessions he made it quite clear that he believed that it was a lost opportunity, the agreement between US and India and there could be a lot greater commitment.

Stephen Smith: Gareth has had a long standing view that more could have been affected in that agreement. It’s a view he’s put previously to me, it’s a view he’s put publically previously, it just happens to be a view that the Australian Government doesn’t agree with.

Amanda Hodge: Was it brought up this time, by Mr Krishna?

Stephen Smith: No.

Amanda Hodge: So, they didn’t take that as a sort of offence? Because, they seemed to take offence at the time.

Stephen Smith: Gareth is an Independent Commissioner of the International Nuclear Disarmament and Non Proliferation Commission which he jointly chairs with former foreign minister Kowaguchi. It’s a second track dialogue. We expect the Commission will have independent views. We look forward to its report. Gareth has that view about the India US Civil agreement, it’s not a view the Australian Government shares.

Amanda Hodge: I understand that in your meeting with Minister Krishna you offered or extended an invitation for joint military exercises or participation in military exercises.

Stephen Smith: There are two things. India and the US do a joint Naval exercise at Malabar. So I said it’ll be a good thing if we joined that. Just as we host a couple of multilateral defence exercises in Australia – Kakadu and Pitch Black. I extended an invitation to them to join that. We’ve got a good defence/security/counterterrorism relationship with India but we think we can move to enhance that. One more thing we are looking at is that whether we can have a joint declaration on security or a memorandum of understanding to not so much formalize but institutionalize the contact that we have.
Amanda Hodge: What was their response to your suggestion that you join Malabar?

Stephen Smith: The same as the response to my suggestion that they join Kakadu. That’s an idea. We’ll think about it and get back to you.

Amanda Hodge: Are you concerned, at what the Pakistani response might be to greater military engagement?

Stephen Smith: No. It’s a confidence building measure. If you look at that part of the world, whether it’s the Indian Ocean, whether it’s South East Asia, these are sensible confidence building measures and just as we are moving, since we came to office to enhance our engagement with India, to take it to the front ranks our bilateral relationships and we’re pleased with making good progress on that front, we’ve also moved to enhance our engagement in our relationship with Pakistan. I went there in January, February this year. We’ve substantially increased, I think doubled, our development assistance from $60 to $120 million. When I was there we announced increasing the number of Pakistan military or defence officers that we were training from 10 to 70.

At the Friends of Democratic Pakistan meeting in New York, which the Prime Minister and I attended, it was chaired by Obama and Zardari and Brown. We announced the doubling of that to 140 training officers. So, by 2011 we’re going to be the second largest trainer of Pakistan military officers on short and longer term courses coming to Australia. That’s a very good thing for us to do. It’s also a very good thing to help Pakistan, who are under a lot of economic, social and security pressures. We are working with India. We are also working with Pakistan.

Amanda Hodge: Are we training any of their frontier corps or frontier constabulary, like the UK and US is doing some work on that front.

Stephen Smith: Our programs are aimed at their offices, at their defence or military force offices. It’s both short and long term courses. There’s a focus on counter terrorism and counter insurgency because that is essentially the challenge that they now face.

Amanda Hodge: So, obviously things are heating up in Pakistan again. It looked for a while that we’re getting on top of the issue but the storming of the garrison in Rawalpindi sends a very poor message in turn to the security of the government. Doesn’t it?

Stephen Smith: It underlines just how difficult the task is for them. But, I think the qualitative improvement in what’s been occurring in Pakistan is that for a long time what was occurring was regarded as a problem for Afghanistan, a problem for the border area region. It took some time before there was a genuine appreciation both in Pakistan and amongst the international community but this was a threat to Pakistan’s very existence. The Pakistan government is now proceeding on that basis and that’s why you’re seeing not just the Government but the Parliament, including the opposition, the media, the community, the military, now all supporting the efforts that are taking place in the North West Frontier and the border areas. It’s no surprise that the extremists and the terrorists are fighting back. It’s no surprise that they will try and fight back or strike back in symbolic or fight back against key parts of Pakistan’s institutions.

Amanda Hodge: It’s no surprise but if you can attack the actual main garrison of the Pakistani military which is the most stable structure of Pakistan, right now, then that can’t be a very good sign for the stability of the country, can it?
Stephen Smith: It shows just how difficult it is for Pakistan firstly. Secondly, yes there was an attack. The attack was stared down. There was terrible loss of life. But the Pakistan military and the Pakistan institutions of State remained in control. This is a big challenge for them, just as it’s a challenge for the international community.

On current projections, Pakistan is going to be the largest Muslim populated country by about the middle of this century, strategically very importantly located in South Asia and they have nuclear weapons. So, this is not a country that the regional community, Australia or International community can allow to fall to extremists or terrorists and that’s why there is a significant international community support for Pakistan.

But they face very significant challenges and no one should be blind to that. But, they have made progress in the course of this year but I think the qualitative change of acknowledgement, attitude, approach has been, with what has been occurring in Pakistan is a threat not only to Pakistan but with international consequence. The Institutions of Pakistan’s State had to address it and that’s what they’re doing.

Amanda Hodge: So, obviously it’s a threat to India’s Western border and it’s already an issue for India and it’s going to be an issue for other countries next year when we all participate in the Commonwealth games. How concerned are we about security?

Stephen Smith: Firstly, of course, Pakistan came up in my discussions with Minister Krishna as you would expect. We continued to welcome the fact that Pakistan and India have been engaging in a dialogue. It’s of course a matter between India and Pakistan but we’ve made it clear in the past as we do now that a return to a formal dialogue would be a good thing. That’s of course a matter for the two of them. But, I welcome very much the fact that in the margins of the General Assembly, Foreign Ministers Krishna and Quereshi, our colleague from Pakistan, had a good bilateral meeting.

On the Commonwealth Games, it’s a terrible and regrettable fact that modern lives, wherever we are in the world today, we can’t just enjoy a sporting spectacle, we have to put our minds to security arrangements. Of course security for the Commonwealth Games is an issue for India just as it’s an issue for the Commonwealth countries and therefore an issue for Australia. It was part of our conversations yesterday and there are a couple of things. Firstly, no one should be in any doubt that the Indian Government isn’t well aware of the issue, the potential difficulty. Secondly, the necessary consultation has been occurring at offices’ level, not just so far as Australia is concerned but also other Commonwealth countries. That would continue to occur from now until the Commonwealth Games and we very much want the Commonwealth Games to be a triumph for India. It’ will also, we hope, be a very successful event for Australia, because we will be sending the largest Australian team overseas, in our sporting history. We are very conscious of the need for security, but India is very conscious of that as well and we are working very closely with them just as they are working very closely with other Commonwealth countries.

Amanda Hodge: Are we offering anything, in terms of material support, rather than just advice.

Stephen Smith: Well, I’ve said that anything that anything we’ve learnt from our previous experiences in large events particularly as the Melbourne Commonwealth Games, Sydney Olympics, we are very happy to share that.
Amanda Hodge: What about actual feet on the ground, security officers?

Stephen Smith: I am not envisaging or expecting that that would occur, but, any requests that we receive from India for assistance in this manner, we will obviously give favourable consideration to.

An important starting point here, which is, the Commonwealth Games is occurring in Delhi on Indian territory. The Indian Government and the Indian authorities are very seized of the need for security arrangements. India has been on the receiving end of terrorist attack in recent times. They are very conscious of it. They understand the dangers and they are working very hard to address them. Which is exactly as we would expect and anticipate of India, just as when Australia was faced with the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and Sydney Olympics, we had to grapple with the same issues.

Amanda Hodge: So, we’ve obviously had trouble in Uruzgan province in recent days. Are you concerned at what that means, for not only our relations with the Karzai government but also for the troops on the ground. There’s going to be a definite mood change.

Stephen Smith: I am not sure if that’s right. Firstly, we all patiently await the outcome of the election process, as we are respecting the request of Kai Eide, the U.N Secretary General’s Special Rep to not come to conclude the view about the election until the Afghan Election Complaint’s Commission have come to their conclusions. We’ve expressed our concern about the allegations of fraud as other members of the International community have done. But we will reserve our judgment until those processes are completed.

Whatever the outcome, whoever forms the new government in Afghanistan, whether it’s a reelected Karzai government whether it is Abdullah Abdullah or whether it’s a combination of the two or anyone else, we will obviously work with the new government. I made the point, when I met with Foreign Minister Spanta in New York , that the Australian Government will expect the new Afghan government to make much more progress on corruption and governance and also in respect for human rights, especially the rights of women than we’ve seen in the past.

Both, before the election and after the election I’ve made the point that it’s not just been allegations of fraud that have been the cause of difficulty for the Karzai Government but the regrettable truth is that there has been an ebbing of confidence in the Karzai government, for some time because of lack of progress in these fronts. Australia is in Afghanistan because we think that it’s in our national interest to be there to help steer down international terrorism. But, we need to see together with the rest of the international community, the progress they make on these fronts.

On the incidents that have occurred, I think we have to be very careful to understand that the Australian Defence forces and Australian Defence personnel are very well regarded in Afghanistan. Very well regarded for being fair and very well regarded for going out of their way to reduce the prospects of innocent civilians being caught up in conflict and for terrible accidents to occur. When we do make mistakes, there are a number of good things in the way in which Australia and the Defence forces deal with it.

Firstly, when we make a mistake, we acknowledge it and that is acknowledged by the Chief of the Defence Forces. Yes, when you make a mistake and a life is lost as a consequence, it’s a terrible thing and for the family and the people concerned it is a tragedy but this is not a regular occurrence for Australian forces. These terrible incidences occur infrequently and when they do we accept responsibility. I don’t think that this event is going to over ride the general view held by people in Uruzgan province about the Australian Defence personnel and forces conduct themselves. I’ve heard that comment both from Minister Spanta. I’ve also had it from Afghan Parliamentary Delegations and their general regard has been the view of Australian Defence personnel in Uruzgan province.

It was a terrible incident, it was a terrible mistake and we’ve accepted responsibility for that, and we will do our best to move on. It’s a terrible circumstance for the family involved, we understand that, but we’re not expecting this incident will over ride the generally well regarded view that we’re held in, in Uruzgan province.

Amanda Hodge: When Minister Crean was here probably a month ago he mentioned he believed that the Australia India relationship has been under done for a long time. Perhaps, we hadn’t put in the effort we should have.

Stephen Smith: The first pitch I gave, when I became Foreign Minister, I said, we need to enhance our engagement with India, we need to take it to the front rank of our bilateral relationship and I have likened it to a sporting analogy which Australians and Indians will understand. In the past, historically, our engagement with India has been like a Twenty20 match, not like a test match. There’s been bursts of enthusiasm, whereas what is required is just ongoing engagement, persistence, perseverance.

But, we’re very pleased with the progress we are making. The discussions I’ve had with Minister Krishna were wide ranging across all the aspects of our bilateral relationships. We’ve been working very hard on a range of fronts. We are hopeful that a number of those would come into fruition when the Prime Minister visits before the end of the year. There’s a lot of economic complimentarity, there’s a lot of like mindedness. We are working very closely in a range of regional, international institutions, G-20, East Asia Summit. So, we’re very pleased and importantly the view which we have that we can take this relationship to higher levels is also shared by India.

I think the danger for Australia into the future and I am talking here not in parliamentary term of Government’s term but in ten years, twenty years to the middle of the century is that we’ve got to have ongoing persistence engagement. We can’t afford to be complacent. Just as our ministerial visits, mine is the tenth since we came to office, and the important thing is we’ve had ten Indian ministerial visits in exchange, not that we’re going one for one. Importantly, it’s not just Foreign Ministerial visits. You start to get to the depth and breadth of a relationship when line portfolio ministers start to engage. That reflects the growing people to people exchanges, growing economic trade invested.

India is now our fifth largest export market. It’ll be our third largest export market very quickly. It’s the areas we’ve been working on very closely, which reflect the like mindedness. We are both robust parliamentary democracies. We are both respecters of rule of law and there are plenty of opportunities, whether it is the G-20, whether it is the WTO, whether it is the East-Asia Summit and hopefully in the future to be APEC. Because we’d like India very much to get into the APEC, or whether it’s the UN. We are strong supporters of India becoming a permanent member of a reformed Security Council.

Amanda Hodge: I noticed that the issue of China vs. India has also come up in conversations you’ve had here with Indian journalists, which is sort of indicative of the way in which they are constantly looking North. Obviously, there’s been growing tension between India and China over this disputed region, Arunachal Pradesh?

Stephen Smith: India’s not just looking North, they’re looking East just as Australia is not just looking North, we’re looking West hence the Indian engagement. We, the Prime Minister, I and Simon have said repeatedly and we say this very much is the century where economic and political strategic influences are moving our way, moving to the Asia Pacific. Everyone sees the rise of China but not enough people have seen the rise of India. And not enough people calculate the rise and just because China is on the rise and India is on the rise some people make the mistaken assumption that somehow the United States is going to disappear. There’ll be some relative eclipse of the United States as a Superpower. To use an American expression, the United States ‘ain’t going anywhere.’

In my view, the key bilateral relationships in the course of the first half of this century will be US and China, US and India, and China and India. It’s very important that those three bilateral relationships are productive and first class and obviously in my discussions I’ve encouraged that. But not enough people are seeing the rise of India. India is on a slower growth rise path than China, but India is also a country of a billion people and we are witnessing it about to take the sort of global place that it’s population, its economic prowess, it’s intellect and it’s history entitle it to.

Amanda Hodge: Back to issue of people smuggling, as I said I was in Sri Lanka this week and I spoke to five different people who had been returned. The first returnees from Australia to Sri Lanka and all of them said that they were treated extremely well and essentially that they felt welcomed in Christmas Island and the consequences that seemed to be in their discussions with me that they would do almost anything to get back to Australia, which is a sort of irony, given, obviously it would not be acceptable for a Labour government to treat asylum seekers the way they were treated under the Howard government and yet a consequence of their good treatment in Australia is that it may not be a disincentive for them to try again.

Stephen Smith: I might be old fashioned but just as in the dealings between nation states so as in the dealings between individuals you can go a long way just by treating people with civility and dignity. So it is actually possible when someone comes to your shores and falls within your requirements to make judgments, it is actually possible to refuse their application for refugee status because they are not a refugee, in accordance with requirements of the refugee convention and then to return them to their nation state of origin in accordance with the requirements of the refugee convention. And it is actually possible to do all of that in a civilized and dignified manner and that’s where Senator Evans’ changes to the procedures have been in my view, effective. You can actually say to someone, the answer is No and do that in a reasonable, civilized and humane way.

Amanda Hodge: Sure, but it may have unintended consequences down the track. If these five people that I have spoken to are any indication, they want to get back there, they really want to get back.

Stephen Smith: Australia has a migration program and if they at some stage fall eligible to enter Australia on the basis of our migration program that is fine but they won’t enter Australia on any permanent basis for making an application for refugee status if they are not refugees.

Journalist: So you’re not worried that we are providing much of a disincentive for them?

Stephen Smith: We are working very hard with the Sri Lankan Government and other Government’s in our regions to stop people from coming in an irregular fashion. If someone is in Sri Lanka and they believe they qualify for status under the refugee convention, they should approach the UNHCR and seek to gain entry to another country through the UNHCR’s on shore humanitarian program. They shouldn’t seek to do it by an irregular means because history has shown that irregular means puts them at risk.

[ENDS] … taken from

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