Turning back the boats helps stem the Sri Lankan tide. Is this part of the solution for Australia?

Joe Kelly & Amanda Hodge, in The Australian, 28 March 2013

CO-OPERATION between Sri Lanka and Australia – and turning back asylum boats – is helping to beat people-smugglers, says Sri Lanka’s high commissioner Thisara Samarasinghe. As the Sri Lankan navy yesterday intercepted the first asylum boat to be picked up there for more than a month, the former naval chief said authorities had stopped more than 3000 asylum-seekers leaving on more than 60 boats last year. He defended the practice as safe and manageable.

Lankan as-seekers-march 2013 Thisara_Samarasinghe-WIKI

Yesterday’s interception has rung new alarm bells for authorities there because almost half of those on board were children. The boat carrying 97 passengers and crew, 40 of them children, was intercepted early yesterday off the east coast after leaving from a village 30km south of the Tamil-dominated region of Batticaloa.”This is the first time we have come across a large number of children on board. Usually there are no more than three or four and we are worried this could be the start of a new trend,” naval operations director Commodore N. Attygalle told The Australian. “I think the reason behind this is that once they land on Christmas Island, as per the (UN) refugee convention, you can’t separate children from their mothers and you can request the father also stays with the children, so they’re realising this loophole. Probably they expect it could stop them from being sent to Manus Island or another (offshore processing centre).”

While the southwest monsoon season in two weeks will close down much of the traffic from Sri Lanka, the easing of monsoon conditions in Indonesia is expected to lead to a sharp increase in boats. On Monday, near Malang in East Java, fishermen found a boat adrift with 21 Sri Lankans. Rather than make their way direct to Australia via the Cocos Islands as most Sri Lankans attempt, they appear to have transited through Java – local water police said they left home three months ago.

As another boat, carrying 147 asylum-seekers, was intercepted by Border Protection Command southwest of Darwin yesterday, the Immigration Department confirmed the number of Sri Lankan arrivals had tailed off in recent months. Last year, a total of 6428 Sri Lankans arrived compared to only 95 so far this year. Australia has also sent back 943 Sri Lankans who were mostly found to be economic migrants since August 13, when the government adopted the recommendations of its expert panel led by former Defence Force chief Angus Houston. Fatmah Noor, head of the West Java anti-people-smuggling taskforce, warned yesterday sea conditions to the south were still fluctuating and risky “but the smugglers are making promises”.

Mr Samarasinghe said that turning back the boats, coupled with the repatriation of failed asylum-seekers, had made a huge impact on disrupting the people-smuggling trade and was a policy that could be replicated elsewhere.  “You can turn away boats, but that is subject to conditions, where you detect the boat and what is the condition of the boat, and its distance from the place of origin,” he said.

Commodore Attygalle said he believed new Australian print and television commercials warning people would be sent back were having an impact, after Australian authorities heeded local advice that previous ads showing “white people in life jackets” boarding boats only confirmed asylum-seekers would be safe on arrival. But he could not rule out the likelihood that more asylum-seeker boats would attempt to capitalise on a two-week window before the southwest monsoons close in.

The opposition spokesman on immigration, Scott Morrison, yesterday praised the efforts of the Sri Lankan government and said the repatriation strategy was working. “If you tow them back, if you send them back, they stop coming,” he said.

But the chief for the International Organisation for Migration in Sri Lanka, Richard Danziger, said the IOM had been holding community meetings across the island to warn of the dangers of people-smuggling, and to canvass the reasons for leaving. “Generally they all centre on jobs, economic opportunity and the future for children,” he said. “Even in private conversations with people in the (Tamil-dominated) north, the economic part is definitely No 1, even those that do say the situation is not great for them politically.”

One of the Australian government’s top advisers, Paris Aristotle, warned that more people would die at sea unless a regional solution was brokered. He renewed his call for the government and opposition to adopt all 22 recommendations of the Houston panel, of which he was a member, following Monday’s boat capsize off Christmas Island in which two people were killed. Julia Gillard has this week batted away questions about the growing number of boat arrivals by accusing the opposition of scuttling her proposed Malaysian people-swap deal. In turn, she has been accused by the Coalition of failing to revamp the deal to provide more human rights protections, as recommended by the Houston panel. Tony Abbott yesterday pushed for the reintroduction of temporary protection visas, offshore processing and a “preparedness to turn boats around where it’s safe to do so”.

Mr Samarasinghe argued the practice could be done safely so long as the captain of the navy vessel made sensible decisions to ensure the safety of the asylum-seekers at all times. The Houston panel found the conditions necessary for the lawful and safe turnbacks did not exist, but noted this situation could change if “appropriate regional and bilateral arrangements are in place”. Indonesian police say the numbers of asylum-seekers on the main routes to Christmas Island have risen sharply since early this month. As of yesterday, in the past three weeks 16 boats from Java carrying some 1125 asylum-seekers have been intercepted in waters near Christmas Island.


ALSO SEE  “A Flourishing Bibliographical Tree: Tamil Migration, Asylum-Seekers and Australia,” http://thuppahis.com/2012/07/30/a-flourishing-bibliographical-tree-tamil-migration-asylum-seekers-and-australia/#more-6461

AND  Stirring the Pot about Asylum-seekers,” 2 February 2013, http://thuppahis.com/2013/02/02/stirring-the-pot-about-sri-lankan-asylum-seekers/

Emily Howie 2013 “Emily Howie’s Summary Update on the Reportage about Boat People,”  http://thuppahis.com/2013/01/09/emily-howies-summary-update-on-reportage-on-boat-people/

Michael Roberts 2012 “Aussies swallow Lies and Rajapaksas miss a Trick,” 31 Oct. 2010, http://thuppahis.com/2010/10/31/aussies-swallow-lies-rajapakses-miss-a-trick/

Michael Roberts 2012 From “Leaky Wooden Boats” to the Imbecile Asian,” 27 December 2010 = http://thuppahis.com/2010/12/27/from-%E2%80%9Cleaky-wooden-boats%E2%80%9D-to-the-imbecile-asian-2/

Michael Roberts 2012  “Missing the Boat: Australians at Sea on Asylum-Seekers,” 19 October 2011, http://thuppahis.com/2011/10/19/missing-the-boat-australians-at-sea-on-asylum-seekers/ 

Michael Roberts 2012  “Australian Gullibility: forgeries, lies and manipulation in the netherworld of in-migration, 26 July 2012,http://thuppahis.com/2012/07/26/australian-gullibility-forgeries-lies-and-manipulation-in-the-netherworld-of-in-migration/

Michael Roberts  2012 “Amanda Hodge adds twist to Dayan Anthony’s tale,” 28 July 2012,http://thuppahis.com/2012/07/28/6405/

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