Home » News

Sri Lanka’s asylum solution | The Australian

[MISC, Wednesday, 4 November 2009 14:24 No Comment]

SRI Lanka’s immigration chief says Canberra and Colombo have talked about bringing unskilled migrant workers to Australia, apparently in an attempt to stop the exodus of boatpeople.

Sri Lanka’s Immigration Commissioner, P.B. Abeykoon, told The Australian yesterday he had raised the issue as a solution to breaking the asylum deadlock.

But a spokesman for Immigration Minister Chris Evans played down the talks last night, saying Australia did not run an unskilled migration program.

The talks came as authorities abandoned the air and sea search for survivors from last Sunday’s boat disaster, and West Australian police confirmed they would send a team of investigators to examine the incident.

Last night another boatload of suspected asylum seekers was intercepted off the Australian coast. A border protection vessel stopped the boat at 5.30pm (AEDT), 35 nautical miles from Cape Van Diemen on the Tiwi Islands north of Darwin. The vessel was believed to be carrying 16 people, who will be taken to Christmas Island.

Battered by a Newspoll showing support for Labor had slumped, the Prime Minister – who has sent senior diplomat John McCarthy to Sri Lanka for talks on the boatpeople influx – continued to blitz the airwaves defending his handling of border security. "My responsibility is to take decisions in the national interest, whether they are popular or not," Mr Rudd said.

Speaking from Sri Lanka, Mr Abeykoon said unskilled migration had been discussed. He said that when he visited Canberra, he had raised the idea of more unskilled migrants as one way of stemming the flow of boats.

"The people who are going through the boats are unskilled labourers, fisherman, farmers," Mr Abeykoon said. "They are not skilled labourers."

His comments followed reports in Sri Lankan media that up to 200,000 unskilled migrants might be in line to come to Australia. Mr Abeykoon said the figure quoted was inaccurate and stressed that nothing might come of the talks. But he confirmed there had been discussions.

He said he had visited Australia last week to meet senior immigration officials here. People-smuggling and the possibility of bringing unskilled migrants to Australia had been discussed at the talks.

Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Australia, Senaka Walgampaya, said he was present at some of the discussions between Sri Lankan and Australian immigration officials. "I believe what the controller says is correct, I hope it is correct," he said.

But the senior official’s remarks prompted a qualified denial from the office of Immigration Minister Chris Evans.

When asked about the Sri Lankan media report, a spokesman for Senator Evans, Simon Dowding, initially denied the story. However, when The Australian presented him with Mr Abeykoon’s remarks, Mr Dowding’s response was to say: "Officials from the Australian government undertake discussions with officials from other governments on immigration matters on a regular basis.

"Australia does not run an unskilled migration program."

Mr Dowding said that "from time to time, matters surrounding Australia’s migration program are raised by other countries".

"Newspaper reports that Australia is seeking to recruit unskilled workers from Sri Lanka are not true," he said.

News of the discussions came as Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor refused to rule out bringing the 78 passengers aboard the Customs vessel the Oceanic Viking, now in Indonesia, to Christmas Island.

But Mr O’Connor said the plan remained to disembark the passengers at the Indonesidan port of Tanjung Pinang, where the boat has been docked for more than two weeks.

The WA Police investigation comes amid suspicions the doomed boat may have been deliberately sunk. Two sources have told The Australian authorities suspect the boat may have been scuttled, citing the rapid and timely circumstances of its sinking just as two other vessels arrived.

However, they stress the boat sank in rough conditions and that there was no proof of sabotage.

A spokesman for Western Australia Police said a team of investigators would travel to Christmas Island to interview the passengers.

The investigation will be conducted on behalf of the WA Coroner, who is expected to declare a disaster victim and identification event.

Last night, the supertanker LNG Pioneer was making its way towards Christmas Island after authorities abandoned the search for survivors of the boat – thought to be carrying 39 Tamil asylum-seekers – following medical advice that survival was no longer possible.

On board were 27 male survivors, including a 15-year-old, and the body of one person pulled from the ocean.

Indonesian officials yesterday expressed hope that an Australian delegation based in Tanjung Pinang might yet convince 78 protesting Sri Lankans to leave the Oceanic Viking, moored off the Riau Islands capital, but admitted they were powerless to help in the process.

They also predicted it was very likely a deadline of tomorrow for the Customs vessel to leave Indonesian waters would be extended if the Australians failed in their efforts.

"We are very flexible. I won’t be surprised if we extend the time of stay for the Oceanic Viking," Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said.

The ship’s permission to remain in Indonesian waters has already been extended once, a week ago, after Kevin Rudd and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono shook hands on a deal for the asylum-seekers to be processed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in an Australian-built detention centre in Tanjung Pinang.

The only party not in agreement with that deal was the Sri Lankans, who have refused to remove themselves from the ship after being rescued by HMAS Armidale between Sumatra and Christmas Island, and are being guarded by Customs officers.

As the stand-off entered its third week, with the Sri Lankans continuing to indicate by notes thrown off the vessel that they were hopeful of being taken to Christmas Island, the most senior Indonesians responsible for managing the crisis on the ground were reduced yesterday to playing pool and singing karaoke in their hotel as

they waited for an Australian breakthrough.

[Full Coverage]

(For updates you can share with your friends, follow TNN on Facebook, Twitter and Google+)

Comments are closed.