Immigration Minister Chris Bowen insists Australia’s tough asylum seeker policies are discouraging Sri Lankans from getting on boats despite a warning that boat arrivals could total 30,000 in 2013.
The minister’s comments came as refugee advocate Paris Aristotle warned asylum seeker boat arrivals, which reached around 2500 in November, were likely to increase next year.
“At the current rate of arrivals, we could see upwards of 25,000 to 30,000 people coming (in 2013),” Mr Aristotle told a parliamentary committee in Canberra on Monday.
“There is simply no way our navy has the capacity to get to every boat that will get into distress in those circumstances.”
Mr Aristotle was part of an expert panel which in August made 22 recommendations to the federal government on asylum seeker policy.
The Gillard government adopted all of the recommendations which included the reopening of offshore processing centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
Mr Aristotle said a long-term commitment was needed to stop the boats.
“If we think this is going to be fixed in three months we are delusional,” he said.
Panel chair Angus Houston told the committee that since August at least 213 people had died at sea and more deaths were likely in coming months.
“With the monsoon season upon us now I think it’s inevitable there will be further loss of life at sea,” he said.
Since August, Australian authorities have returned more than 700 Sri Lankans, who had arrived by boat, back to their homeland after deciding they were not refugees.
Mr Bowen says this was discouraging others from taking the perilous boat journey to Australia.
“We’ve seen a very big reduction in the number of people arriving from Sri Lanka in recent weeks – it’s been 13 days or so since we had a boat from Sri Lanka,” he told Fairfax radio on Monday.
Foreign Minister Bob Carr is in Sri Lanka this week discussing ways of ending the people smugglers’ trade.
The minister on Monday unveiled a four-point plan to fight people smuggling, which included Australia giving 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.
Senator Carr said images of Sri Lankans being returned from Australia will be screened on Sri Lankan television and cinema screens to show that “if you give money to people smugglers, you’re not going to succeed”.
“That’s the most powerful way we can puncture the business model that lies behind this recent spike in numbers from Sri Lanka,” Senator Carr told Sky News.
Meanwhile, the government announced on Monday that it had reopened the Pontville Immigration Detention Centre in Tasmania and 95 Afghan men had been transferred there from Christmas Island.
The facility has a capacity of 400 and is expected to receive more detainees.
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