Houston backs Sri Lankan send backs

Former defence force chief Angus Houston has backed the government’s policy of sending people back to Sri Lanka, if they are found to be seeking asylum for economic rather than humanitarian reasons.

Asylum advocates have raised concerns about the immigration department interview process that determines whether or not a person is a genuine refugee. But Mr Houston says “where it is clear” that someone is not a refugee, they need to be sent back.

“The principle of sending what are essentially economic migrants back to where they came is exactly the way the system is supposed to work,” he told reporters in Canberra on Monday.

Australia has returned 700 Sri Lankans since August 13.

On Monday, Mr Houston appeared before a Senate committee inquiring into government regional processing legislation.

He led the government’s expert panel on asylum seeker policy which recommended restarting offshore processing as part of a broader approach to deter people from making the dangerous journey by boat to Australia.

Earlier this month, a group of Sri Lankan asylum seekers mounted a High Court challenge because they feared the government was about to deport them back to their home country. The government later said the group would not be removed “in the foreseeable future”. At issue was the practice of “screening out” – or asking asylum seekers to explain why they came to Australia and the circumstances in their home country.

Surveillance training for Sri Lanka 

This comes as Foreign Minister Bob Carr announced a four-point plan to give Sri Lanka extra surveillance and search and rescue equipment. Australia will also host a joint training program on maritime surveillance for Sri Lankan naval officers.

“There is a message from these talks to people in Sri Lanka – by getting on that boat you risk your life, you’ll lose your money and you will be sent back home,” Senator Carr said in Colombo on Monday.

There has been a surge in numbers of Sri Lankan economic migrants undertaking asylum seeker boat journeys to Australia in recent years. 

Under the plan, there will also be a $700,000 advertising campaign targeting Sri Lankan towns and villages identified as people smuggling hot spots.

“We’re setting a clear agenda for intelligence sharing, naval co-operation and helping rebuild Sri Lanka – all designed to reduce people smuggling,” Senator Carr said.

Australia hopes to cut demand for economic migration with a $45 million AusAid program, over five years, to help rebuild houses and schools in poor rural communities, he said.

Tasmanian detention centre reopens

This also comes as the government has re-opened the Pontville Immigration Detention Centre in Tasmania. 

 A group of 95 Afghan single men were flown from Christmas Island to Hobart and transferred to the centre outside Hobart late on Sunday, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said.

  Mr Bowen said the initial group made the first of what would be regular transfers to Pontville.

   The $14.8 million, 400-person camp housed asylum seekers behind its security fences for six months before being closed in March.

    Another boat arrives 

Australian authorities intercepted a boat carrying about 54 people late yesterday. 

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said the boat was picked up north of Christmas Island yesterday, and that the passengers will be transferred to Christmas Island for initial health, security and identity checks. 

According to Customs, this year 272 boats have arrived in Australian waters, carrying 16,828 people.

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