Illegal Refugees Put Pressure on Australia’s Christmas Island Centre

By John Janke

CANBERRA ~ The growing surge in illegal refugees to Australia from Indonesia and other Southeast Asian embarkation points has placed strong pressure on Australia’s Indian Ocean refugee-handling facility at Christmas Island.

Local officials and residents on Christmas Island claim the detention centre is nearing its capacity with the latest unauthorised migrants – some 194 illegal refugees – stretching the facility’s capacity.

However, Australian Immigration Minister Senator Chris Evans has claimed that Christmas Island could cope with the now almost weekly run of illegal boat arrivals. But the increase in illegal arrivals continued despite Indonesian officials apprehending 1,000 potential illegal refugees in Indonesia.

This week’s boatload was the 16th illegal vessel to arrive at Christmas Island this year and was part of a surge in illegal entries since the Rudd government eased its policy on illegal refugees last year – a strategy which many believe sends the wrong message to people smugglers in Asia, who see the policy as offering tacit encouragement to people smuggling.

Australia’s Shadow Minister for Immigration Dr. Sharman Stone said that more than 1,000 asylum seekers had arrived in Australia since the Rudd government softened border protection policies last August.

Dr. Stone said that along with the more than 1,000 illegals already intercepted in country by Indonesian authorities on Australia’s behalf, this meant that almost 20 percent of Australia’s refugee program is controlled by people smugglers.

“Instead of taking measures to strengthen Australia’s borders, the Labor government sent another message to people smugglers this week – that the back door is still open,” Dr. Stone said.

Dr. Stone blamed the Rudd government’s softening of a raft of measures to shut down illegal immigration and said that it was clearly being exploited by people smugglers as evidence that Australia has given them the green light to recruit more and more customers, endangering more and more lives.

The Rudd government’s new measures of encouragement include planned complementary protection visas for illegals, abolishing the 45-day rule and the personal intervention by Minister Evans to approve 650 refugee visas already refused by Australia’s independent Refugee Review Tribunal.

Dr. Stone said the people smugglers clearly have a well-oiled pipeline to Australia and they were taking control of Australia’s refugee program.

Evans said that Christmas Island could accommodate up to 1,200 people across the range of facilities, and that the island could adequately accommodate the 479 illegal boat arrivals currently on the island and would cope with the latest arrivals. He said a recent UN report confirmed an increase in people seeking illegal entry into Australia.

Australia allocated AUS$654 million in the May budget for measures to combat people smuggling and there have already been some successes in disrupting ventures in Indonesia, according to the minister.

Another measure which provided an attraction to illegal refugees was Australia’s generous Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme, where payments were made to eligible asylum seekers and allowances paid to detainees on Christmas Island at the same rate or 89 percent of Australia’s Centrelink Newstart job-seekers allowance.

According to the Department of Immigration, illegal refugees who were granted permanent visas may gain access to health and welfare benefits on the same basis and at the same rates as Australian permanent residents.

Refugees were also assisted by the Department of Immigration with English-language lessons and settling-in money for basic goods to start a household, and subsidies for rent and utilities.

Under its Settlements Grants Program, the government also provided funds to community organisations in Australia to assist refugees on arrival in Australia.

John Janke is a former Australian diplomat who served for several years in Indonesia.

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