By JR on Monday, August 01, 2011
PEOPLE-SMUGGLERS in Indonesia are understood to be preparing at least two more asylum boats as Immigration Minister Chris Bowen conceded some of the 800 boatpeople transferred to Malaysia may end up back in Australia.
As authorities on Christmas Island readied themselves for the arrival of 54 asylum-seekers whose boat was intercepted yesterday, and who will be among the first transferred as part of the government's Malaysia Solution, Tony Abbott predicted the new arrangements would fail.
"The ink is scarcely dry on that deal, yet another boat arrives," the Opposition Leader said yesterday. "I'm very doubtful this is really going to stop the boats."
Mr Bowen told the Sky News Australian Agenda program the 54 would be sent to Malaysia within "weeks" once they had been identified and screened.
Vulnerable asylum-seekers, such as unaccompanied minors, will almost certainly avoid transfer to Malaysia, although Mr Bowen was careful to insist there would be no blanket exemptions for fear smugglers would exploit loopholes in the regime.
"We've got appropriate staff now on Christmas Island," Mr Bowen said of the arrangements being made to effect the first transfer. We've got counsellors, we've got assessment staff, and we also have a Federal Police and security presence to make sure that all the appropriate arrangements are in place, and that's what will apply."
The minister's tough line followed the interception on Sunday morning of the latest asylum boat, which had among its personnel several Afghans and two crew, northwest of Scott Reef off the West Australian coast. It was the first boat to arrive since the Gillard government's Malaysia pact came into effect.
Under the arrangement, which was signed in Kuala Lumpur last Monday, Australia will transfer up to 800 boatpeople, taking in return 4000 declared refugees from Malaysia over four years.
A source close to the South Asian syndicates operating from Jakarta told The Australian yesterday the vessel was organised by a group headed by the jailed Pakistani Haji Sakhi, alias Zamin Ali, one of three people-smugglers being sought for extradition by Australia.
Two more boats are being organised by the Jakarta syndicates, one by an Afghan operator formerly part of the Sajjad group and the other by an Iraqi group.
News coverage of protests against the Malaysian deal in Australia and Kuala Lumpur has raised awareness of the risks among potential passengers and, according to sources in Jakarta, that threatens a slowdown in the traffic in the months ahead
But as the AFP prepared to force asylum-seekers on to planes, the shadow of legal action fell over the government's plan and threatened to delay, or prevent, any pending transfers.
Prominent refugee lawyer David Manne, whose advocacy on behalf of Sri Lankan asylum-seekers is credited by some for effectively ending the system of offshore refugee processing, hinted that he might oppose any attempt to deport the 54 asylum-seekers. "Wherever you have a situation of life or death, matters involving such significant rights and interests, and the government shirking its basic obligations in terms of protect obligations, then you certainly couldn't rule out a challenge," Mr Manne said.
Mr Bowen moved to manage public expectations about the implementation of the plan, saying the initial transfer would not occur within the 72-hour timeframe stated in the agreement. Instead, there would be a "ramp-up" period of a few weeks.
Mr Bowen's office confirmed none of the transit facilities that would hold the asylum-seekers was ready, nor had the government signed leases for any of the buildings, which were likely to be old hotels.
He said that while none of the 800 sent to Malaysia would be included in the quota of 4000 refugees coming back, some could find their way to Australia via normal resettlement channels.
"If the UNHCR makes the decision that somebody in Malaysia who has been transferred by us is a compelling case and it's appropriate to be resettled, then we would consider that in the normal course of events," Mr Bowen said. "But there would be no special treatment for those people."
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison leapt on the admission, saying it was further evidence of the government's lack of resolve. "They've exposed too many chinks in this thing, in terms of how they've announced it," he said. "I think the deals dying the death of a thousand cuts."
The Greens also condemned the deal, with their immigration spokeswoman, Sarah Hanson-Young, calling on the government to process the 54 asylum-seekers in Australia. "These people are being sent to an unknown fate because despite claims from (Ms) Gillard, there is no guarantee their human rights will be protected because there have been no changes in Malaysian domestic law," she said.
Mr Bowen insisted the transfer sent a "very clear message" to anyone considering the boat journey to Australia. "We're going to take you back to where you started that boat journey," he told Sky News. "You have nothing to gain out of that boat journey."