By Cynthia Banham and Mark Riley
November 14, 2003
The Federal Government has admitted its blunt assertion that 14 Kurdish boat people had not sought asylum was wrong and should never have been made.
In an embarrassing backdown, the people-smuggling taskforce that masterminded the Government's response to the arrival of the Kurdish boat off Melville Island said the men had, in fact, sought sanctuary in Australia.
The taskforce's report into the arrival of the vessel, Minasa Bone, torpedoes the claims by the Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstone, and Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, that the 14 men had not claimed asylum.
It says the "unauthorised arrivals" had repeatedly stated their desire to land and live in Australia. This included statements that "we are from Turkey, don't want to go back, no good. We want to go to Australia."
One man had brandished an English-Turkish dictionary and pointed to the word "refugee". Others had claimed to be Kurdish refugees and that they wanted to go to Australia because Turkey was "no good".
The development has echoes of the "children overboard" affair before the last election when ministers made statements, subsequently proven to be false, that asylum seekers had thrown their children into the sea.
The latest revelation has led to demands from the Opposition parties for an inquiry.
It also comes as the United Nations issued a scathing indictment of the Government's handling of the boat people.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees accused Australia of jeopardising "the proper functioning of the international protection regime".
A UNHCR spokesman, Kris Janowski, said Australia's actions were at variance with the 1951 Refugee Convention, and its shifting of responsibility set a "negative precedent worldwide".
"Our main concern is that people who are already vulnerable have been made even more vulnerable by Australia's neglect of its international obligations," Mr Janowski said.
The 14 men, 12 of whom have told the UNHCR they want to make refugee claims, are now being held in Jakarta after they returned to Indonesia, having been towed from Melville Island, off Darwin, last week and directed to international waters.
The Government has rejected the UNHCR criticisms, denying it contravened the Refugee Convention because it had retrospectively excised Melville Island from the migration zone. This meant the men had no access to Australia's legal system.
Senator Vanstone, at a press conference in Melbourne which she had to abort after being yelled at by angry students, said the revelation that "some people did say things referring to human rights and mentioned refugee" was irrelevant.
"The key point is these people were not in the Australian migration zone," she said. "They were always going to be sent somewhere else by the Australian Government where any claims they might make would be properly processed.
"So in effect it's simply not news or relevant whether they did or did not make certain remarks on the naval vessel or on their own boat."
But UNHCR's Australian representative, Michel Gabaudan, said it remained firm in its belief that Australia breached the convention in sending the men back to Indonesia - which is not a party to the convention - without ensuring they would have their asylum claims processed.
He said excision was an "internal arrangement" which had no bearing on Australia's international obligations.
Labor accused the Government of misleading the public, with the Deputy Opposition Leader, Jenny Macklin, saying "this is the horrors of children overboard all over again".
Earlier, the Opposition Leader, Simon Crean, said the ALP would force a full parliamentary inquiry into the treatment of the Kurds.
The director of supervision and enforcement with Indonesia's Immigration Department, Muhammad Indra, said it was inhumane to leave people stuck in the ocean between two countries.
"If what happened was that these were legitimate asylum seekers, then what the Government of Australia did was wrong. But if it is a case of illegal people smuggling, then their actions were correct."
Australian Detenction Centers