As Foreign Minister Bob Carr signalled a crackdown on asylum-seekers who discard their identity papers, an analysis of boat arrival figures has cast doubt on the government’s assertion that its failure to act swiftly on the Sri Lanka crisis was the original sin that precipitated the surge in boat arrivals that followed.
The figures came as Kevin Rudd flew to Jakarta for meetings with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Before he left, Mr Rudd played down expectations the visit would herald a breakthrough in asylum policy.
“Don’t hold your breath for some sort of bright and breezy announcement . . . that everything is all fixed and back to normal,” the Prime Minister said.
On Wednesday, Mr Rudd said immigration policy was not “set in stone” and must be adaptive and flexible. “If we’ve made a mistake . . . it was in perhaps not being quick enough to respond to the new change in external circumstances, with an outflow from Sri Lanka from a civil war in 2009-10.”
Mr Rudd’s comments were part of an organised attempt by senior government ministers to push back on the asylum issue.
That same day, Immigration Minister Tony Burke said 2009 was the year the international situation changed significantly.
“Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka were all in a situation where significantly larger numbers were leaving those countries,” Mr Burke said. “At that point, we needed to change our policy settings to match and anticipate the changed international situation and we didn’t.”
Both cited the Sri Lankan civil war, which ended in May 2009, as being pivotal to the problem that followed. But the end of the war did not prompt a mass exodus of Sri Lankan refugees to Australia.
An analysis of Immigration Department figures showed that in 2009 just 736 Sri Lankans arrived by boat, or about 27 per cent of total arrivals for that year.
By comparison, 1409 Afghans arrived in 2009 — almost double the number of Sri Lankans. The number of Sri Lankans arriving in 2009, while modest, did, however, represent a major increase on the previous year, when just 16 Sri Lankans arrived.
Yesterday, Mr Burke said the analysis assumed the government was only referring to the situation in Sri Lanka.
“This is not the case,” he said.
“We have been referring to a change in the number of people moving around the world and citing Sri Lanka, Iraq and Afghanistan as key examples.”
In 2010, Sri Lankan arrivals declined, with 536 arriving, or 8 per cent of all boat people. The following year 211 Sri Lankans arrived, just 4.6 per cent of the total.
Sri Lankans did not start arriving en masse until last year when 6428 arrived, their passage spurred by high-level corruption within the Sri Lankan government and an influx of Sinhalese economic migrants. Sri Lanka denies any allegations of corruption.
Yesterday, Senator Carr said the practice of asylum seekers destroying their identity documents was allowing economic migrants to disguise themselves as asylum-seekers. About 90 per cent of asylum-seekers arrive without travel documents, despite the majority using a passport to enter Indonesia or Malaysia by air.
The opposition set out a policy last year that would allow assessors to “draw an unfavourable inference” about a person’s refugee claims if they concluded that an asylum-seeker had deliberately ditched identity papers.( The Australian)