Australia clamps down on information about asylum seekers

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 23, 2013 3:40 AM

By Rob Taylor

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia's government said on Monday it would no longer provide regular information on asylum boats turned away or on emergencies at sea involving asylum seekers under a new military operation to curb people trafficking.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, accused by rights groups of imposing a gag on an issue which split voters in a September 7 election, said the government would no longer provide full briefings on border protection incidents to safeguard operational security and avoid alerting trafficking syndicates.

"The government is taking control of our borders, not the people smugglers," Morrison told reporters in Sydney. "We are going to stop the boats. That is our commitment to the Australian people."

The steady flow of refugee boats is a hot political issue in Australia, polarizing voters, while stoking tension with neighbors like Indonesia and Sri Lanka over hardline border security policies criticized by the United Nations.

About 400 boats have arrived in the past 12 months, and about 45,000 asylum seekers have arrived since late 2007, when the former Labor government relaxed border policies, eventually tightening them again in the face of a voter backlash.

Conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott arrives in Jakarta on September 30 for talks with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on his promise to have Australia's navy turn asylum-seekers away at sea and break the business of people traffickers operating from Indonesian ports.

But Indonesian lawmakers have sharply criticised Abbott's plan to turn boats away and buy up fishing boats to prevent their use by trafficking gangs, as well as pay Indonesian villagers for intelligence on operations.

Australia has also placed a senior general in charge of a military mission dubbed "Operation Sovereign Borders", risking fresh criticism from neighbours and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Morrison said the government had speeded up the processing of asylum seekers to ensure they were sent to offshore detention centres operated by Australia in Nauru and Papua New Guinea within 48 hours of their detention.

"We'll be doing things differently as a government," Morrison said. "It will be a tougher approach. Our resolve to implement what we have promised the Australian people, to stop the boats, is absolute."

Morrison said the government would provide a regular weekly briefing on boats arriving in Australia, and would make a case-by-case decision on whether to provide information on boats which sink. Hundreds of asylum seekers have drowned trying to reach Australia.

"We are not about to give smugglers a head up on these sorts of things," he said.

(Editing by Robert Birsel)