No More Boat People: Australian border official

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Subsequent to the introduction of a new initiative, no Sri Lankan boat carrying undocumented persons have reached Australia, says Major General Andrew Bottrell, Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB), the military- led border security initiative of the Australian Government.

During his visit to Sri Lanka last week, OSB Commander in his single English language interview to the Sri Lankan media, told the Sunday Observer that many conditions have changed in Sri Lanka, thus reducing the number of Sri Lankans boats being intercepted.

He added that Australia fully supported Sri Lankan’s resettlement initiative and therefore has invested Australian $250 million to assist post war reintegration initiatives. Excerpts:

Q: Explain briefly the rationale behind Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) initiative, launched in 2013 to prevent persons without visas from reaching Australia?

A: It is a new policy borne out of necessity to protect Australia’s sovereign borders.

There are two main reasons behind the policy. Australia has lost control of its sovereign borders. On the other hand, some 1200 had died en route to Australia which means, unauthorized entry is putting people at grave risk. We believe the numbers to be higher than that and this includes Sri Lankans as well.

These ‘illegal arrivals’ undermine Australian sovereignty and violates its borders.

For those who wish to enter Australia through legal means and settle there, a legal and formal migration process is made available. Through that, Australia annually absorbs some 190,000 foreigners. Through our Refugee and Humanitarian Program, another 13,500 persons are annually absorbed.

Despite these programs, people use illegal methods to enter Australia and the nation appears to have lost control over its sovereign borders due to ongoing human smuggling.

We have governments collaborating with Australia to protect our borders and theirs. We receive support from international agencies to curb and control human smuggling. These rackets thrive largely due to the lack of knowledge. So we work at different levels.

Q: In your view, what makes Australia one of the top choices of undocumented migrants?

A: Australia is inclusive and receptive to humanitarians concerns.

Q: You mentioned initiatives to educate people on the consequences of reaching Australia through unlawful methods? Please explain.

A: We educate people about the consequences of human smuggling and the risk attached to it, physically. There is loss of money and on top of all that, there are legal consequences of detention and/ or return.

Illegal means will result in surveillance, detection, interception and return. Australia is very clear about it.

There are far-reaching consequences to such detection. Such a person will e never be allowed to enter Australia legally. There is a carefully constructed deliberate program to absorb persons who wish to migrate through the legal mechanism. There is also the refugee and Humanitarian Program for vulnerable people. No other doors exist.

Australia’s sovereignty needs protection. The OSB has proved effective and it has achieved its intended outcome. No boats have reached Australia since the OSB initiative was launched in 2013 In achieving that, Sri Lanka has proved an invaluable partner.

Q: What support was sought and received from the Sri Lankan Government to curb boat arrivals?

A: Sri Lanka is a key collaborator. As a country, it has positively responded to our call. Though this collaboration, we detected 122 boats in 2012, and by 2013, the number was reduced to just 14 boats.

The Navy Coast Guard and the government itself have remained extremely supportive.

Q: There is a marked reduction in the number of undocumented migrant arrivals in Australia since 2013. According to the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection, out of some 53,000 persons, some 10,000 persons were Sri Lankan nationals, making Sri Lankans a category of nationals seeking to enter Australia through illegal means. Is there a reverse trend now?

A: Yes, some conditions have changed in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankans form a significant number of those seeking illegal entry. Australia has taken deliberate measures to prevent entry. It is also the reason why Sri Lanka is a significant partner to this initiative OSB but also because of Sri Lanka’s level of genuine reciprocity. Australia values that.

Since this initiative, no Sri Lankan boat has reached Australia. All were diverted.

Once detected, the return will expose them to domestic legal consequences and permanently deny all opportunities of legal migration to Australia. This message is important.

Q: Has here been an increase in Sri Lankan professionals from migrating to Australia?

A: There is a regular flow. The 190,000 managed migration program has embraced thousands of Sri Lankans over the years. This includes 60% skilled persons and 40% joining families in Australia. This is Australia’s acknowledgement of persons who wish to legally enter Australia and adopt it as their new home.

Q: What is the general profile of the Sri Lankans who attempt to reach Australia by boats? Are they asylum seekers, economic refugees or persons leaving the former war zones due to fears of persecution based on ethnic/religious identity?

A: They are mostly economic migrants.

Earlier, there were many who were running away from Sri Lanka. That backdrop no longer exists. The new political landscape should encourage people to enter Australia through legal means than risk being prey to human smugglers.

Q: The Australian immigration policy has been severely criticized in the recent past by Australians themselves and many rights-based organizations. Australia is viewed as a humanitarian country that embraces people of all colour. Is this image now dented due to the introduction of the OSB initiative?

A: Not at all. Australia also offers no excuses. Some organizations have not been happy with the new initiative and have been criticizing it. Yet, it is a government decision and the government has the right to decide on the best ways to protect its sovereign borders.

As explained, for those who wish to enter Australia, mechanisms do exist and Australia is not willing to entertain illegal methods that violate its borders.

Q: Rights advocates have raised concerns about the new policy and practice both. Firstly, there are concerns about lack of legal access by the undocumented arrivals, transparency in the process and absence of independent review of the process of processing arrivals. It is dubbed a secretive process by some. Secondly, poor conditions of the processing centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru are a concern. What is your response?

A: As the Commander of the Operation Sovereign Borders, I have visited both these places. The environment is austere but in terms of facilities, I think all the required basic standards are being met. It caters to the basic requirements of the people who remain there through processing.

We have an agreement with these two territories and they are not a part of Australia. When Australia resends the undocumented persons back home, it is effective to do that from there.

Q: UK courts have suspended forced return of undocumented migrants. The UN too has recognized that people who are at the risk of harm such as persecution and degrading treatment should not be sent back. How do you view Australia’s policy in the backdrop of this global response to swelling numbers of undocumented migrants everywhere?

A: Smugglers’ are undermining policies deliberately for money. Some advocates don’t like the policy. The Australian policy is consistent with international law and international humanitarian law.

Australia complies with all its international obligations. Our policy may sound tough. But that’s a government decision.

Q: OSB launched an ambitious campaign in Sri Lanka by putting public hoardings and sponsoring radio spots to educate people on Australia tightening its laws and that ‘boat people ‘will be diverted to the processing centers or re-directed to Sri Lanka. Is your campaign successful?

A: It is a successful initiative. It seeks to educate people of the choices that are available to them – or the sheer lack of them, if they resort to illegal methods to reach Australia.

The fact that the number of ventures being reduced backs up the view that these messages intercepted with the dose of the Nauru and PNG reality, deter people.

It is an enduring message and we need to educate the people. Also, we inform people about the legal methods and encourage them to use those mechanisms. Being smuggled into Australia is a grave risk to their lives and results in return and loss of their resources. It is not worth the effort. That’s our core message.

Q: You earlier mentioned that due to the war’s end, people no longer flee Sri Lanka in fear but the ‘new’ boat people are economic migrants. Nearly seven years after the end of the war, it would still be incorrect to state that in the former war zones, people are well- settled, though there is more normalcy than before. There are serious concerns about resettlement, reclaiming land and homes as well as infrastructure and employment needs that are largely unaddressed. These people do not have the means to go through the formal process and may still opt for the risky boat rides.

A: I agree that there is much to be done in the post war years and it would be too early to assume that conditions are completely conducive for return and resettlement. But we know that the Sri Lankan Government is working on it and Australia wants to stand by Sri Lanka in this effort.

This is why Australia contributed Australian $250 million to the resettlement and reintegration program. That is recognition of the existence of these problems that compelled them to flee their country and a means of supporting them to build a new future. Australia wishes to assist in the resettlement process.

(Originally published in the Sunday Observer, Sri Lanka).

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