Press conference

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Consular State of Play, detention of Uighurs in China, release of Timothy Weeks, Hong Kong, Pacific, Syria.
18 November 2019

Marise Payne:

Thanks for joining us this morning for the launch of the 2018-19 Consular State of Play that gives Australians a snapshot of the consular assistance that my department has provided to Australians overseas in the past year, when we know that Australians have made more than 11 million overseas trips in the last calendar year, an increase of 20 per cent from five years earlier. Most Australians return home safely. Of course they do. But sometimes, things go wrong and if they do, we want to make sure that they are aware of the consular assistance that is available to them. But most importantly, we want to make sure that they are using smartraveller.gov.au to support them in their travel and frankly, also to support their families in knowing that they are going to be safe and doing the right thing.

So, we've had a reduction in the number of consular cases in the last year, continuing a steady reduction, notwithstanding the increasing number of travellers. That suggests to us, we hope, that Australians are preparing well for overseas travel and that they understand the risk and hopefully, it suggests, they’re also using smartraveller.gov.au. We’re going to launch a new Smartraveller website this week, which will be a more contemporary platform, which will be encouraging Australians to use all their devices to stay in touch, and we, in turn, using our ability to communicate with them in times of crisis or of trouble.

So, a lot to discuss in terms of the Consular State of Play, and I'm very happy to do that and to answer other questions.

Journalist:

A number of arrests, most likely, as you've acknowledged, last year, is up a quarter in the last five years. What message do you have in that context for Australians travelling abroad?

Marise Payne:

Well, the arrests fall into two clear categories. They fall into immigration issues, which will be visa related and things like that; and criminal issues. So, importantly, we would say that it’s obligatory, or Australians should be obliged to know and understand the laws of the countries in which they're travelling. They won't be the same as Australia. There are differences all over the world. And so, the importance of knowing what the laws are where you are going, what you were required to do, is very, very important. You're going to see on our new Smartraveller website, and also some of our new advertising in the coming year, more explanation of that and what Australians can do to look after themselves.

Journalist:

Minister, what's your reaction to The New York Times leaked report about the Chinese activities in the lead up to the alleged detention of Uighurs? What do you make of some of the language that Xi Jinping has used in the lead up to that operation?

Marise Payne:

Well, we are taking this report very seriously and I made a statement on this yesterday. The report's conclusions and the material that is provided is quite voluminous – over 400 pages – and of course that will take some time to review. But its conclusions are consistent with what we've seen previously.

Australia has raised our serious concerns about the detention and treatment of Uighurs and other religious minorities in Xinjiang. We have done that both directly to China and in appropriate international fora, whether that is the Human Rights Council or the UN itself. We will continue to do that. We are very concerned about those human rights issues.

Journalist:

Well, President Xi Jinping has used language like: to use the weapons of dictatorship and to show no mercy in regards to this issue. Does that kind of brutal language concern you?

Marise Payne:

The entire report is concerning, including the treatment of the millions of – over a million individuals that we have seen detailed in that. That is arbitrary detention. There are other restrictive measures in place. We very much seek the Chinese Government's amelioration of these circumstances. They are not observant of appropriate human rights requirements.

Journalist:

Would you consider launching an official compliant with the Chinese Ambassador?

Marise Payne:

Australia will make our own decisions about how we handle these matters. And as I've said, we have made clear our concerns both in bilateral conversations and in appropriate international fora.

Journalist:

So, what are your plans regarding Timothy Weeks now that the swap deal has failed?

Marise Payne:

Well, these are very complex issues. Extricating individuals from a hostage kidnap situation is never, never a simple task. In fact, it goes to some of the things that we've been discussing today in some ways.

So we have seen those reports. We welcome the support of the Afghan President and the Afghan Government in any negotiations in which they are involved to potentially achieve the release of Mr Weeks. He and his American counterpart have been in a hostage situation for over three years. That is an extraordinarily difficult time – most certainly for Mr Weeks but also particularly for his family here in Australia. Our consular officials have regularly sought and made efforts at all levels with the Australian Government to obtain his release. We have also sought to keep his family supported and informed as best as we are able. I hope very much that we can see an outcome in this very difficult situation and I continue to work very closely with our representatives, our post in Afghanistan and in other international posts to make sure that if we can achieve an outcome, we do that as soon as possible.

Journalist:

Minister, we’ve seen in the last couple of hours in Hong Kong, some of the Chinese Army and officers getting involved and recently storming into a university. What was your reaction to that?

Marise Payne:

I released a statement about the circumstances in Hong Kong at the end of last week. We're very concerned about the increasing levels of violence and have, for some time now, sought to call for appropriate behaviours on both sides, from both law enforcement and from protesters and the minimum use of violence as far as possible. That continues to be a very serious concern for us.

Australia and Hong Kong have a very special relationship. It is possibly our largest single diaspora location of Australians in Hong Kong – almost 100,000 people and obviously, out of concern for their safety and security but also out of concern for the unique nature of Hong Kong that makes it what it is, the One Country, Two Systems Approach. The preservation of that and the protection of individual safety and the protection of people's basic rights is also very important to us.

So we've reiterated our call for peaceful protests and proportionate response. We are very concerned by the scenes that we have seen today. And I've been in touch through my office as recently as an hour ago with Australia's Consul-General in Hong Kong, Michaela Browning.

She's regularly engaging with Australians as part of the diaspora there, engaging with Hong Kong authorities, and of course with counterparts who share similar concerns.

Journalist:

Can I ask, we've seen in the Pacific in the last couple of weeks some crackdowns on press freedom particularly in Vanuatu where they’re looking to deport a major newspaper editor and also in Kiribati where Channel Nine's 60 Minutes crew were refused entry. Are you concerned about some of those crackdowns on press freedom among our Pacific neighbours?

Marise Payne:

Well, those decisions are matters for the countries themselves, is the first thing that I would say. But we would always encourage amongst the rights and freedoms that are important and valuable in our own system and more broadly, that we would always encourage freedom of the press and the opportunity for appropriate reporting. I actually launched a women-only radio station called Femme Pawa in Vanuatu myself; 24-hour women's radio station to engage and involve women in all aspects of Vanuatu life, when I was in Port Vila just two weeks ago, so very much supportive of that.

We work closely with journalists from the Pacific in a number of countries — Fiji, Vanuatu, many others in terms of bringing them to work with and meet Australian journalists such as yourselves, to engage with them about how you go about your jobs. I think that's an important contribution that Australia makes as well. And in all of our democracy work, our governance work, we emphasise the importance of the free press. Ultimately, those decisions will be made by governments themselves; of course, they will. But it is something that we would always reinforce from Australia's perspective.

Journalist:

So you don't think that some of those governments in the Pacific are crossing the line?

Marise Payne:

Well, they are decisions for sovereign governments. They’re decisions that they will take as cabinet or a ministry, and they will exercise their own judgment on that.

Journalist:

And just another question. Have you received any offer at all from the US to help extract some of the Australian families from al-Hol camp?

Marise Payne:

I've seen reports over the weekend of an official making a public statement on that matter. That is not something on which Australia has received formal communications. But we have said very clearly that this is an extraordinarily complex environment. I had the opportunity when we were making very significant efforts to remove nine orphaned children from the al-Hol camp and surrounds to have an insight into exactly how complex and difficult and, most importantly, dangerous their situations are.

The Turkish invasion of Syria has only exacerbated those problems and Australia has been very clear that we — whilst we understand the predicament in which those people find themselves, and certainly understand their challenges and the difficulties for their families, we will be very, very careful about any steps we take in relation to that because we won't put any further Australians in danger.

Journalist:

Do you think that there could be possibly some likelihood of a partnership with a country like the US in terms of dealing with this issue or is Australia ready to go with this alone?

Marise Payne:

I'm not going to speculate on those sorts of things; they’re a matter for formal and government to government discussions. Most importantly though, it was very clear and it continues to be very clear that this was a strong advice from the Australian Government was: do not travel, do not go to this part of the world, you are entering the most dangerous part of the international community in so many ways. And the challenge that we now find ourselves with, and that those individuals find them themselves with, is that is exactly the case. It's extraordinarily complex; it's extraordinarily dangerous, and it is one in which the Prime Minister has made his views clear.

Journalist:

Just with regards to getting these families out though, do you think that, given it has taken a while, that Australia could use some help with it?

Marise Payne:

Well, I think you will find many countries — not just Australia — dealing with the security situation on the ground in that part of northern Syria. It is, as I said, a very, very complex matter and not one which we have a ready opportunity to deal with.

Thanks everyone.

Journalist:

Thank you.

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