Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms

Transcript E&OE

9 November 2009, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Colombo.

Press Conference, Australian Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith and Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, Rohitha Bogollagama.

Subjects: People smuggling, bilateral relationship.

MINISTER BOGALLAGAMA: Members of the media, I am joined today by my distinguished colleague, the Australian Foreign Minister, the Honourable Stephen Smith, who is visiting Sri Lanka at my invitation along with his delegation.

In terms of our close bilateral relationship and more focus for today's visit in terms of certain migration issues, including business issues of illicit, or illegal migration that is taking place, I would like to initially welcome every one of you to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for this briefing and I would like to stick to a prepared text and offer the floor thereafter to my colleague, to address you and thereafter both of us will be available for invitations and any responses to be made.

Ladies and gentlemen of the media, I am pleased to inform you that my Australian colleague and I have just signed a joint Ministerial Statement. I am very pleased that the Honourable Stephen Smith, Minister of Foreign Affairs, is here in Sri Lanka today on a one day official visit at my invitation. He is accompanied by Mr John McCarthy, Special Representative of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and a delegation.

On this occasion, I wish to recall my own visit to Australia in 2008, during which we were able to address a wide range of issues concerning Sri Lanka/Australia relations. At that time, our discussions focused on issues including the banning of LTTE, dealing with their network of various illegal operations, such as human smuggling, money laundering, illegal financing and fundraising etc.

This visit has made possible for us to review the progress of those issues that we had discussed at that time. We are meeting today in the aftermath of the LTTE's defeat and the need for cooperation in the post-conflict resettlement phase, including resettlement, rehabilitation, infrastructure development. In that context Foreign Minister Smith's visit can be considered helpful and timely. During our discussions this morning, the issue of human smuggling was the main focus. We also discussed the possibilities of information sharing and permanent banning of pro-LTTE activities on Australian soil.

We agreed to establish a national level focal point to coordinate the efforts and assist people smuggling to be curbed and also address these threats and also we agreed to establish a joint commission between the two foreign ministries of our countries, to review the progress and take stock of developments on a regular basis and in a structured manner.

The Australian Government has also agreed to provide a package worth AUD $11 million to provide housing and food, resettlement and demining activities, in addition to the development of infrastructure in the north. I also want to acknowledge the assistance we have been receiving since the end of the conflict by the Australian Government, through the multilateral agencies that are deployed in Sri Lanka, and international NGOs who are currently working in the north in addressing some of the humanitarian issues. As at today the total lies at AUD $49 million.

Both Sri Lanka and Australia have committed jointly to enter bilateral cooperation against criminal elements in the smuggling trade, through information sharing and to better identify measures to prosecute those responsible. I am also pleased to state that this afternoon an MOU, on legal cooperation against the smuggling of migrants and related actives between Australia and Sri Lanka, was signed in the presence of His Excellency the President. The MOU is clear reflection of our core commitments to cooperate in preventing and responding to the smuggling of migrants and other related activities.

I also wish to report our appreciation of Australia's proactive stance in the sphere of countering terrorism. Although we have successfully eliminated the LTTE militarily within our shores, the pro-LTTE groups continue their clandestine activities to resurrect the LTTE overseas. The Government of Sri Lanka is confident that the Government of Australia will remain vigilant and mindful in this field.

I wish to reiterate that the Government of Sri Lanka greatly values Australia's pledge that was made during the visit of the Foreign Minster to support the reconstruction and resettlement programs of our government in the Northern Province.

Australia is one of Sri Lanka's major sources of foreign direct investment. We therefore hope to see further investments as well as flowing into the provinces, both in the north and the east, which would assist in further strengthening the current post-conflict processes of rehabilitation and reconstruction. I now give the floor to my learned friend, the distinguished Foreign Minister of Australia.

MINISTER SMITH: Thank you very much Minister. Firstly, can I say how pleased I am at your invitation to visit Colombo and Sri Lanka. Mine is the first visit by an Australian Foreign Minister to Sri Lanka since 2003 and it follows on your visit to Australia last year.

I am very pleased that today I have had a constructive and positive set of meetings with the Foreign Minister, also with the Minister for Justice and Law Reforms, with the Minister for Human Rights and Disaster Management, and of course a meeting and lunch with the President, in the company of the Foreign Minister.

I have been accompanied on these important and productive meetings by Australia's Special Representative to Sri Lanka, John McCarthy, Australia's Ambassador for People Smuggling, Ambassador Woolcott, and also of course Australia's High Commissioner to Sri Lanka.

I have been very pleased with the productive nature of our conversations today. The Foreign Minister has referred to the two documents we have signed associated with our meetings today. Firstly, the joint statement, the Joint Foreign Ministerial Statement that we have just signed, and secondly, the Memorandum of Understanding signed by our officials in respect of legal cooperation so far as people smuggling is concerned.

There were two main features of our discussions and meetings today. Firstly, we had very productive discussions about resettlement and reconstruction. Australia has provided Sri Lanka with assistance in the past to seek to help the great challenge of resettlement and reconstruction. We welcome very much that in recent times large numbers of people have been resettled into their communities. To assist that process I am announcing today, as the Minister has referred to, that Australia will be contributing a further AUD $6 million for de-mining activities, to clear mines in areas needed for resettlement, AUD $2 million contribution to the World Food Program for food assistance to people who have been resettled and are in need of urgent food assistance, and AUD $3 million through United Nations Habitat to assist in the repair, construction and reconstruction of housing.

We are also, as the Minister referred to, looking at what Australia can do in terms of supporting the efforts currently being made by international organisations, in particular the World Bank, with its reconstruction project in the north, and also the Asia Development Bank.

We welcome very much the resettlement that has occurred. There are a large number of people who remain to be resettled. Our assistance is aimed at enabling these resettlements to occur as quickly as possible. As the Joint Statement refers to, when these displaced citizens are resettled then of course we want to see them resettled with freedom, particularly freedom of movement.

We also spoke, in the course of the day, about the challenge of combating people smuggling and human trafficking. Australia and Sri Lanka cooperate very significantly so far as the challenge of combating people smuggling is concerned. But we have agreed that there is more that we can do and that is reflected by the Memorandum of Understanding we have signed, so far as legal aspects and legal cooperation against people smuggling are concerned, particularly in areas of prosecution and in areas of information sharing, in areas of disrupting the activities of the people smugglers.

Minister, it has been my great pleasure to be here today. As you indicated, I had a standing invitation to visit to Sri Lanka since your visit to Australia. It has been, I think, to use your words, very timely. We of course face together the challenge of people smuggling. This is not a challenge that either Australia or Sri Lanka can meet by themselves. In addition to our bilateral cooperation, we of course work closely together in the Bali Process, which is our regional organisation aimed at combating people smuggling.

In the middle of next month, in Australia, officials under the Bali Process will get together under one of the working groups, to look at the challenges we face so far as people smuggling is concerned. It is also timely because in the recent period, the last month or so, we have seen a large number of people resettled out of displaced persons camps.

In September, Australia made a substantial contribution to assist in the resettlement, including in de-mining. I am very pleased that the further contributions, the further assistance, I have announced today go very much to accelerating the process of moving people from the displaced persons camps back into their communities. It has been my great pleasure Minister, thank you very much for the productive conversations we have had, but also thank you for the warmth of your hospitality.

MINISTER BOGALLAGAMA: Thank you Minister. Are there any questions we can respond to?

QUESTION: ...inaudible...

MINISTER BOGALLAGAMA: We are looking at a very comprehensive engagement within the framework of power, and also the prosecutions that will be a matter of interest to both states. Sri Lanka's stand has always remained, that people smuggling has been part of terrorist activities - it has previously been associated with LTTE activities. We have done everything possible to prevent this from happening and we will cooperate further with Australia to make it happen - to prevent it and address these trends that emerge in the recent past of people smuggling.

We also strongly believe some of the sources through which people have been smuggled have not been directly from the shores of Sri Lanka, but there has been a transitional point from which they are going through. Our engagement in a comprehensive manner will eliminate all these possibilities and we will cooperate with Australia fully.

QUESTION: ...inaudible...

MINISTER SMITH: He is a Sri Lankan citizen as I understand it and is currently on a boat in Merak Harbour. The boat, which contains over 250 Sri Lankan citizens who are seeking to claim asylum, was intercepted by Indonesian naval vessels in Indonesian waters. It is currently in Merak Harbour and the Indonesian authorities are indicating to the people on board the boat that they should leave the boat to enable processing, under Indonesian processes to occur, which is consistent with the UNHCR process. I have no information in so far as ‘Alex' is concerned to confirm one way or the other. That will be a matter for the Indonesian authorities to determine and to consider.

So far as applications for asylum which are made within Australian territories, Australia is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Human Rights. So anyone who claims asylum within Australian territories will be processed in accordance with the Refugee Convention, processed in accordance with Australia's international obligations under that Convention and are processed in accordance with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees processes.

We also ensure that there are rigorous health, quarantine and security assessments effected on a case-by-case basis and they have always been in place so far as Australia has been concerned and they continue to be in place. One thing which we always ensure we take into account when we consider these matters are those health, quarantine and security assessments.

QUESTION: ...inaudible...

MINISTER SMITH: We have adopted and we effect United Nations sanctions so far as financing of terrorism is concerned. We have in the past given a consideration to proscription under Australian law of the LTTE. We continue, given the qualitatively or dramatically changed circumstances, to give consideration to that. But we have adopted, and enforced very strongly, the United Nations sanctions on financing of terrorism and it would of course be inappropriate for me to make any further comment. But as we speak there are a number of charges in respect of those matters which are before criminal courts in Melbourne in Australia.

QUESTION: ... inaudible...

MINISTER SMITH: There is also a separate case of 78 Sri Lankans who are claiming asylum who are on an Australian vessel, called the Oceanic Viking, our Customs vessel. The asylum seekers were picked up in the Indonesian search and rescue area at the request of Indonesian search and rescue authorities. Australian and Indonesia agreed that they would be taken to Indonesia, which they have. Currently we are in negotiations and discussions with the people on board and also in discussion with Indonesian authorities to bring these people off the Oceanic Viking in a safe and peaceful manner to enable processing of those people by the UNHCR in Indonesia.

QUESTION: ...inaudible...

MINISTER SMITH: Australia and Sri Lanka have in the past cooperated very well on people smuggling matters. That includes cooperation at police level, cooperation at customs level and cooperation at naval level. But we believe we can do even more together. That is reflected by the Memorandum of Understanding that we have signed. We think, for example, that there is more that we can do in terms of capacity building and cooperation on prosecutions and on information sharing, which the Minister referred to. We face a heightened challenge from the criminal syndicates behind people smuggling and we need to up our cooperation and up our efforts to combat that, and that's what we agreed to do today.

QUESTION: ...inaudible...

MINISTER SMITH: Well, let me deal with those two issues.

Firstly, as I said earlier, if anyone within Australian territory claims asylum then under the Refugee Convention than that is considered consistently with the Refugee Convention, consistent with Australia's international and domestic legal obligations. The test of course for the Refugee Convention is whether someone is in fear of persecution and that is considered consistent with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees practices and in accordance with the convention.

As a consequence of that, on a case by case basis, some people are accorded refugee status some people are not. Those people who are not accorded refugee status are returned to their country of origin. Often you see the phrase ‘economic refugee' or ‘people who are in search of a better life, or a better lifestyle'. That is not a criteria for a successful application under the Refugee Convention for refugee status.

So these are exhaustively considered on a case by case basis. People who make an application which is successful in accordance with the provisions with Refugee Convention are either settled in Australia or settled in a third country. Those people whose application fails are returned to their country of origin.

So far as reconciliation is concerned, this was the reconstruction, reconciliation, and healing, and the second area that the Foreign Minister and I, and other Ministers and the President spoke at length about today.

Sri Lanka faces a great challenge in the aftermath of a civil conflict, a terrible civil conflict, which lasted for 25-30 years, to rebuild, reconstruct, reconcile and heal. In that respect Australia wants to give Sri Lanka as much assistance as it can. And so we welcome very much that large numbers of displaced people have moved from the displaced persons camps.

We welcome very much the commitments we have seen in terms of moving people back into the community with all the freedoms associated with that, and as I referred to earlier, particularly the freedom of movement.

It is important that Sri Lanka win the peace, a phrase that I have used, it's important that countries like Australia assist in that process. It's also important that the international community assist in that process. And it is one of the reasons why Australia, in terms of its support for resettlement, will be saying to other countries we believe that it support should be given to enable the reconciliation, the reconstruction, the healing process to occur and for that to occur successfully.

QUESTION: ...inaudible...

MINISTER SMITH: If all the Foreign Minister and I were doing, if all Australia and Sri Lanka were doing was a one day meeting then there might be some validity to that. But I think that it is important to understand that in terms of combating people smuggling and the criminal syndicates behind that, this is something that requires a long term commitment and Australia and Sri Lanka have been cooperating. I am not the first Australian Minister to come to Sri Lanka to discuss these matters. My colleague the Immigration Minister, Senator Evans, was here a couple of months ago. That followed on a visit of officials, led by the National Security Advisor, and in the future we will see other relevant ministers come.

When I depart tomorrow to go to the APEC meeting in Singapore, the Special Representative, Mr McCarthy, and the Ambassador for People Smuggling will remain to continue discussions. So this is an area where, as the MOU signed today and as the Joint Statement signed by the Minister and I today made clear, this is something requires Australia and Sri Lanka's long term commitment.

The Prime Minister, the Immigration Minister and I, in the Australian domestic context, have made it clear we see now large numbers of people displaced throughout the world, large numbers of people displaced throughout the Asia Pacific Region. This is an issue, a problem, that can't be dealt with by one country acting alone.

There has to be close bilateral cooperation which is what you see between Australia and Sri Lanka on the one hand, and Australia and Indonesia on the other. But also it has to be met regionally, which is why the Foreign Minister and I in the course of the day have spoken about how closely Sri Lanka and Australia work under the Bali Process. This is the regional institution of some 40 countries from the Asia-Pacific together with relevant regional and international institutions that cooperate to deal with these matters.

That is why Indonesia and Australia, who co-chair the Bali Process, convened a Ministerial level meeting of the Bali Process in the course of this year and why officers will be meeting in the middle of December in Australia to deal precisely with these issues, including the difficulties Australia and Sri Lanka face so far as people smuggling is concerned. This is an issue which can only be dealt with by having the cooperation regionally and internationally of source countries, transit countries and destination countries, and that includes more than Australia and Sri Lanka in our own region.

QUESTION: ...inaudible...

MINISTER SMITH: No, the Australian Government wants to do a number of things. We want to ensure that we work very strongly with countries in our region to combat the criminal syndicates behind people smuggling. Secondly, where people do make a claim for asylum under the Refugee Convention, we assess that in accordance with our domestic and legal obligations.

Given the vast numbers of people potentially displaced throughout the world, this is an issue we can only deal in cooperation with countries in our region including Sri Lanka, including Indonesia, including Malaysia, and including Thailand. This is a problem that not just our region, but the world faces. Our response is a strong response so far as Australia's border protection is concerned, and a strong response so far as cooperation with other countries is concerned. But also if someone comes to Australia and claims asylum, in accordance with the Refugee Convention, we conduct ourselves in a manner which discharges our commitments to the Refugee Convention and our international and domestic legal obligations.

MINISTER BOGOLLAGAMA: Thank you all round and with the permission of my distinguished colleague, I will now say a few words in Sinhala. [No translation provided]

ENDS

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