14 November 2003

Refugee story torpedoed by PM's taskforce

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'.

Evidently no-one tells the foreign minister or the immigration minister anything either. After the Senate, as they certainly will, retrospectively excise the retrospective excision, where will the government's latest excuse be? And is this why the 14 appear to have been told they could seek refugee visas in jakarta, a concession not made to any other group of unauthorised arrivals?

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