Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee
Estimates hearings 30 May 2012
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
Senator Bob Carr, Minister for Foreign Affairs
Mr Dennis Richardson, Departmental Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade
Mr Paul Robilliard, First Assistant Secretary, South and West Asia and Middle East Division
Ms Deborah Stokes, First Assistant Secretary, International Organisations Branch
Mr Paul Myler, Acting First Assistant Secretary, Europe Division
Senator RHIANNON: On 29 May the Australian ran a story that said the authorities in Sri Lanka had detained 113 asylum seekers and six organisers as they prepared to leave for Australia. Did the present Australian High Commissioner or other Australian Embassy officials supply information to the Sri Lankan authorities to assist in stopping the boat?
Senator Bob Carr: I would need to get advice on that.
Ms Stokes : I am terribly sorry, I do not have information on that with me.
Senator RHIANNON: If you do not have information on that specific incident, are the current Australian High Commissioner or any other embassy officials supplying information to the Sri Lankan authorities to stop boats leaving that are suspected of having Tamils onboard who are seeking asylum in Australia?
Mr Richardson : Senator, we will take the detail of that on notice. As a general proposition, if we have information that would prevent the departure of people seeking illegal entry into Australia we would seek to pass that on to the relevant authorities, as was made clear in the statement by our former High Commissioner in Sri Lanka some months ago.
Senator RHIANNON: But don't we recognise that these people have a right to seek asylum in Australia? Aren't we obliged to meet our international obligations?
Mr Richardson : If someone arrives in the Australian immigration zone we have an obligation to hear their claim if they make any claim. We do not have an obligation to take that all around the world wherever anyone may be thinking of making a claim. At the point where someone is leaving a country to come to Australia they have not entered Australia's immigration zone and we do not have an obligation to hear any claims that they might down the track be thinking of making.
Senator RHIANNON: But do we have an obligation to report their suspected intentions to the Sri Lankan authorities?
Mr Richardson : We do not have an obligation. But the government would consider—and I agree—that we have a national self-interest in doing so, as we seek to discourage people from making long voyages in vessels that are sometimes unseaworthy. We have seen the tragic consequences of people seeking to make such voyages and the government takes an active interest in seeking to discourage people from undertaking such voyages.
Senator RHIANNON: Do we also have a national responsibility to assist people who are in danger of discrimination, violence, and kidnappings?
Mr Richardson : I do not believe we have a national responsibility to apply that principle without regard to circumstances right around the world. If we did that right around the world, then it would be interesting in terms of movement flows to Australia. We certainly take an active interest in people who are discriminated globally. We certainly take an active interest in people who are subject to human rights abuses around the world and we pursue our responsibilities in that respect through the proper forums such as the UN and the like. We also make representations to relevant countries on human rights abuses.
Senator RHIANNON: You have just identified the importance of human rights and the making of decisions on reporting the possible movements of Tamils leaving Sri Lanka. Is there an understanding that the reasons Tamils are leaving their country of birth by boat, often in dangerous circumstances as you have mentioned, is the threat of discrimination, violence, and kidnappings that they may face at the hands of Sri Lankan officials?
Mr Richardson : It still does not impose on us, at that point, an obligation to encourage or assist, or to facilitate, their movement to Australia. Where we have information that people might be seeking illegal entry to Australia we pursue that with the local authorities. Equally, where we have reason to believe that people are suffering human rights abuses in a country, we do take that up with the relevant country and also in other forums such as the UN.
Senator RHIANNON: Could you outline how you have taken up this issue with the Sri Lankan officials?
Mr Richardson : We have discussed that at different points, both with the Sri Lankan representatives here in Australia and also in Sri Lanka itself. In terms of chapter and verse, I would need to take that on notice.
Mr Robilliard : In recent months, on 8 May, deputy secretary Grigson raised our concerns with the Special Envoy of the President of Sri Lanka on Human Rights, Mr Mahinda Samarasinghe, who was visiting Australia at the time. On 3 May the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Mr Chris Bowen, who was visiting Sri Lanka primarily in association with his responsibilities for and interests in people smuggling, raised this with Sri Lankan ministers. Again, as the secretary has indicated, we have raised this recently in April with the high commissioner here in Canberra on, at least, two or three occasions in the last three months. We also raised it with the Sri Lankan secretary for education who was visiting Canberra in March this year. I think there is a fairly consistent record and pattern of representations.
Senator RHIANNON: You spoke about the high commissioner. In the Australian on 29 May, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia said that 'certain organisations were funding the travel of Tamil asylum seekers to Australia'. In these discussions that you have had with the high commissioner or in other discussions, have you spoken about these claims and the basis on which he makes them?
Mr Robilliard : I am not aware the high commissioner has raised them directly with the department.
Senator RHIANNON: But as this is a public statement that is being made about certain organisations who are funding the travel of Tamil asylum seekers to Australia—and we have heard today and on many other occasions about the efforts that the High Commissioner in Sri Lanka is putting in to stopping Tamils leaving Sri Lanka, would it not be a priority to understand and ascertain more information about what was meant by certain organisations, who they are and how they work?
Mr Richardson : Is that a report in the Australian on 29 May?
Senator RHIANNON: Yes.
Mr Richardson : That is yesterday.
Senator RHIANNON: Yes.
Mr Richardson : Today is the 30th, so the next time we meet with the Sri Lankan high commissioner, we can take up that matter.
Senator RHIANNON: I apologise.
Senator KROGER: I think he has actually raised that point before.
Mr Richardson : I do not know.
Senator KROGER: I think he raised that some months ago.
Mr Robilliard : We will follow that up and check.
Senator RHIANNON: What I would like to quickly check and also I will just ask: are you planning on taking this matter up with the high commissioner regarding these claims?
Mr Richardson : When we speak to him we will certainly raise the matter with him.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Just to stay with the high commissioner, in April an Australian man—Mr Gunaratnam—was kidnapped in the Sri Lanka by the Sri Lankan authorities, before reappearing and then coming back to Australia. The high commissioner said at the time:
He has not been kidnapped and we do not have kidnapping by our government.
Mr Gunaratnam, however, said he was kidnapped and sexually tortured by Sri Lankan secret police. Have you had any discussions with the high commissioner about his claims and the basis on which he makes such claims about Australian citizens?
Mr Robilliard : I will have to check that point for you, as to whether we have discussed that specifically with the high commission.
Senator RHIANNON: So you will take that on notice?
Mr Robilliard : I will check it for you, yes.
Senator RHIANNON: In February, the high commissioner Mr Samarasinghe spoke at a function in this parliament and said:
The Tamil migrants in Australia are raising funds to support future Tamil Tiger activities.
Again, have you had any discussions with the high commissioner about his claims and the basis on which he makes such claims about Australian citizens?
Mr Richardson : That we will take on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: Those comments were in February. They are quite serious comments. I just wonder whether there is anybody here who might be able to expand on that.
Mr Richardson : It does go to responsibilities of other agencies, who would be better able to deal with that issue.
Senator RHIANNON: Which are the other agencies?
Mr Richardson : Quite obviously ASIO are one such agency. They are aware, because there have been cases in the past where some people have sought to engage in activity relating to other countries and the sort of matter he is implying is a matter that would be the responsibility of that agency.
Senator KROGER: Mr Richardson, that might well be the case, but it also would not be unusual for him to raise it with the foreign minister or you.
Mr Richardson : I will check to see whether he has raised it with us.
Senator RHIANNON: Just a bit of a generic question: is it appropriate that a high commissioner of a country is able to make antagonistic claims about Australians?
Mr Richardson : He can. There is nothing to prevent him making such claims. We allow free speech.
Senator RHIANNON: I think it is worth asking: have you any examples where a high commissioner or an ambassador has made antagonistic claims about Australians? It would seem that is not what they do.
Mr Richardson : No. There have been—
Senator RHIANNON: They are diplomatic.
Mr Richardson : There have been umpteen examples over the decades where ambassadors from different countries have made claims in relation to Australians.
Senator RHIANNON: Can you give us a couple of recent times?
Mr Richardson : In recent times, I cannot. But if you go back through the years, there have been examples.
Senator RHIANNON: My understanding is that they are rare and that, when they do happen, Australia defends its citizens and responds. That is what I am trying to understand here. Has there been a response?
Mr Richardson : We do not always respond generically. I said that we will ascertain the details of what precise discussions we have had with him about what precise topics. That is the best I can do.
Senator RHIANNON: Have you briefed the Prime Minister about the high commissioner's claims, including the basis of these claims?
Mr Richardson : We certainly have not.