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Transcript E&OE

28 October 2009

Interview with ABC Radio AM Program


Subjects: Oceanic Viking, Asylum Seekers.

TONY EASTLEY: To discuss how the Federal Government plans to resolve the impasse, we've been joined by the Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith. He's in our Canberra studio with Alexandra Kirk.

Alexandra Kirk: Stephen Smith, good morning.

STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, Alex.

Alexandra Kirk: Is there any sign that the asylum seekers will be taken ashore to Indonesia?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, what's occurred overnight is the Oceanic Viking has moved from its port out into deeper water to desalinate. It'll come back in this morning, Indonesia time, and then discussions will recommence with Indonesian officials about the method of disembarking the Sri Lankans from the Oceanic Viking onto Indonesian soil.

Alexandra Kirk: The local governor has said that his territory shouldn't be used as a dumping ground for asylum seekers, and that the Australian-funded detention centre isn't ready to take the asylum seekers anyway. He's also refusing permission for the Customs ship to berth. So what now?

STEPHEN SMITH: What he's also said - pointedly and advisedly - is that he will do what the President directs him to do. The President has already made that decision. There's an agreement between Australia and the Government of Indonesia that the people who were rescued in the open seas will go to Indonesia and be processed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Indonesia. Now, that is what will occur.

Of course, it's difficult, it's a complex operational matter, but I remain confident that with the professionalism of the Australian officials on board and with the ongoing cooperation of the Indonesian Government officials, who have responsibility in this area, that the objective agreed between Prime Minister Rudd and the President will be effected: which is returning these people to Indonesian soil for processing by the UNHCR.

Alexandra Kirk: It's clear many in Indonesia don't want these asylum seekers, they see them as a problem - Australia's problem - and the asylum seekers, presumably, don't trust Indonesia. They're refusing identity and medical checks and won't disembark voluntarily. Are you prepared to leave the Oceanic Viking and the asylum seekers there indefinitely...

STEPHEN SMITH: I'll tell you...

Alexandra Kirk: ... or prepared to force the issue?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there are a number of things that we're not prepared to do. One thing is that we're not prepared to leave people at risk on the high seas.

Remember, the special circumstances of this case. We were asked by Indonesia to assist in the Indonesian search and rescue area. We knew that there would potentially be refugee and immigration implications as a result of effecting the rescue. But we're not going to leave people stranded.

Getting them back onto Indonesian soil is difficult and complex, but we will continue to work with Indonesian officials to effect that.

Of course, refugee issues are emotional in Indonesia, as they are in Australia. That's why we're proceeding calmly and methodically. But also you need to appreciate that the people who are making comments aren't the people who have authority in this area. It is the authority...

Alexandra Kirk: Except that they seem to be...

STEPHEN SMITH: It's the authority of...

Alexandra Kirk: ... [indistinct] what's going on at the moment aren't they?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, they're not. The detention centre in Indonesia that these people will go to, to be processed by the UNHCR, is an Indonesian central government-run detention centre.

Alexandra Kirk: But getting them there is the problem, isn't it?

STEPHEN SMITH: And we're going to do that in a way where their safety is secured. This started as a search and rescue mission on the high seas and it will end in that manner. We are making sure that the welfare of those people on board is protected and that will continue to be the case.

Alexandra Kirk: But they haven't, the Sri Lankan asylum seekers, the 250 that were on another boat that are still docked on the boat in Merak in Indonesia, they're not off that boat. If you haven't found a way to convince them to go ashore, how can you hope to convince the 78 asylum seekers...

STEPHEN SMITH: Well...

Alexandra Kirk: ... aboard the Oceanic Viking to do so?

STEPHEN SMITH: These are two separate cases. Firstly, the boat in Merak, which has over 200 Sri Lankans was was interdicted by Indonesian officers in Indonesian waters, and the Indonesian Government is dealing with that. They have determined that they will allow the people to remain on the boat until such time as they choose to come on shore .....

Alexandra Kirk: And is that your view now about those 78 on the Oceanic Viking?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, let's just deal with the two separately, because they are entirely different and separate matters.

Alexandra Kirk: But the circumstances are the same, aren't they?

STEPHEN SMITH: If you let me finish answering, Alex. A small number of Sri Lankans have come off the boat in Merak. That's entirely a matter for the Indonesian officials to manage.

We've got 78 Sri Lankans on an Australian vessel, a Customs vessel. There's an agreement with Indonesia that they will go onto Indonesian soil and be processed by the UNHCR. We will do that in an orderly way, in cooperation with Indonesian officials. And we'll do it in a way where the welfare of the people on board is safeguarded.

Let me make this point: it's not a matter for the Sri Lankans on board to choose where they make their application for refugee status. We absolutely defend their right to make that application. But they were picked up on the high seas. They were rescued on the high seas. It's not their choice.

In the end, we want them to cooperate. But how they disembark from the Oceanic Viking, in the end, will be a matter between Indonesian officials, Australian officials and the Sri Lankans. Their conduct, and how they conduct themselves in this matter is also relevant and important.

But I remain confident that the cooperation between Australia and Indonesia, and the professionalism of our officers will see them safely off the Oceanic Viking onto Indonesian soil.

Now, that may take some time, but I'd much rather that than leave them stranded on the high seas.

Alexandra Kirk: Well, they're not stranded on the high seas at the moment.

STEPHEN SMITH: They're not stranded on the high seas, Alex, because we rescued them. And when we rescued them, we knew that there would be immigration and refugee implications. If we had our time again, we would do precisely the same thing, because it's the right thing to do.

It was the right thing to rescue them. It's the right thing, in cooperation with Indonesia, to return them to Indonesia. And that's what we're doing and we'll do that in a safe way. If it takes more time, so be it.

Alexandra Kirk: You've said that disembarkation will be orderly and civilised. That means no use of force?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that was my hope. On the basis of the advice I've had over the last 24 to 48 hours, I still believe that can be effected. But I make this point advisedly, in the end, it is not a matter for the Sri Lankans on board to choose where they make their application for refugee status.

They were rescued from the high seas because Australia wanted to discharge in unique or different circumstances its humanitarian and search and rescue at sea obligations. We did that. There were always going to be humanitarian, refugee, or immigration implications. Those implications will be resolved in Indonesia on Indonesian soil, because that's the agreement we have with the Indonesian Government.

Alexandra Kirk: And if the asylum seekers refuse to get off the Oceanic Viking and onboard an Indonesian patrol boat, is there any chance they will be brought back to Australia to Christmas Island?

STEPHEN SMITH: No. Because if you look at the relevant comments of Indonesian officials, the most relevant comment of Indonesian officials today is the comment from the spokesperson for the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. He says, these are unique and special circumstances, but the President's decision will be effected. That may take some time, but that is what will occur.

Alexandra Kirk: Stephen Smith, thank you

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Alex.

[ENDS]

Media inquiries

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