Subjects: Visit to Sri Lanka; launch of 'Zero Chance' campaign; illegal people smuggling vessels.
Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen for being here today. First, I want to say thank you to all of those who attended our roundtable this morning and also a very important dinner that we held last night with our counterparts from Sri Lanka. We have a very, very close working relationship with Sri Lanka and I'm very grateful for that exchange of information, the exchange of intelligence and ultimately that benefits both Sri Lanka and Australia as well.
I'm very pleased to be here today in the company of Major General Craig Furini, who's accompanied me to Colombo to continue to build on the work that he's undertaken as the person in charge of Operation Sovereign Borders.
Sri Lanka is a very important partner with us in the fight against people smugglers. I'd also very much, very warmly, like to acknowledge the presence today of Vice Admiral De Silva, who's the Commander of the Navy and a very good friend of Australia. He leads an organisation which is integral to the success that we must share together in staring down the scourge of people smuggling.
We have, led by the High Commissioner here in Sri Lanka, a significant team of people who work on a day-to-day basis with our counterparts here, and as I say much of that work is targeted at defeating people smugglers in their attempts to put together ventures: taking money from innocent men, women and children who will never make it to Australia. The Major General in a moment will launch our campaign, our latest strategic communications campaign.
I want to send a very clear message today to people smugglers both in Sri Lanka and across the region. Australia has just held a recent election and the Government has been re-elected, and on that basis, our policy in relation to the protection and security of our borders has not and will not change. We've been very clear and consistent in our message over a long period of time that Australia is a very generous nation. We take a number of people through our refugee and humanitarian program each year. In fact, on a per capita basis, the most successful nation behind Canada in the world in terms of the numbers of people we bring in, but we will never bring in people by boat. People who come to Australia through our visa program, through our refugee humanitarian program, come by plane. They make an application through the High Commission or through our Government and through the visa process, and those visas will be assessed on their merit and we will decide who comes to our country in those circumstances, but we will not allow people to arrive in Australia by boat.
I know that people smugglers might be telling some of those who would seek to come to Australia that the situation has changed; but it hasn't. People smugglers have been lying to you and you must reject what they say, regardless of how much money you hand over, regardless of what is promised; people will never arrive by boat in Australia and we have a very tough border protection program and regime policy in Australia and that will continue under the Government led by our Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
So, my message is very clear to those people smugglers today, we are not going to allow you to get back into business. We recently worked very closely with the Vice Admiral, with other people within the government of Sri Lanka, to return very quickly 20 people who had sought to come to our country by boat, and that should serve as a very, very timely reminder to people that the journey to Australia can only be by plane. It cannot be by boat and we have very strict policies in place that will stop people ever being able to settle in Australia.
Ultimately, if you give money to a people smuggler you will lose that money and you will be returned back to Sri Lanka very quickly. That's the absolute resolve of the Prime Minister and myself and of our Government, and that policy is reinforced today with the announcement to be made by Major General Furini.
Major General, I'll ask you to now launch the campaign and to give us some information about the latest stage of our Operation Sovereign Borders.
My name is Major General Craig Furini and I am the Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders, charged with protecting Australia's borders from illegal maritime people smuggling and preventing people from risking their lives at sea. I'm here with the Minister to further enhance our already strong relationship countering criminal maritime people smuggling. That is why I have next to me today Vice Admiral De Silva, Commander of the Navy, a great friend and an ally in this cause.
The operation I lead, Operation Sovereign Borders, is a multi-layered operation, harnessing the strength of 16 Australian Government agencies and international partners, such as Sri Lanka, to prevent illegal maritime people smuggling. We do that by denying anybody who tries such a journey from settling in Australia and by maintaining a continuous, strong presence of ships and planes to Australia's north on our maritime and air approaches, including approaches to Cocos Keeling and Christmas islands, that Sri Lankan illegal immigrants target and have targeted in the past. This is evidenced by the recent intercept of a people smuggling vessel at Cocos Island and the rapid return of 20 Sri Lankan nationals to Sri Lanka on 29 May.
But by far, the most desirable objective of Operation Sovereign Borders is to deter and disrupt people from getting on boats in the first instance. This is not possible without the excellent cooperation from regional partners – partners such as Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka's Coastguard, Navy and Police do great work in cooperating on this threat.
As an example, on 7 March, Sri Lankan authorities disrupted a people smuggling venture off Galle with 28 people on board. On 23 May, they rescued a vessel in the Indian Ocean that had gotten into distress. Fortunately, the Sri Lankan Navy was able to rescue 41 Sri Lankan nationals on board. This highlights the very real danger of attempting these journeys.
Before my operation started in 2013, over 1,200 people drowned at sea attempting such journeys. Since Operation Sovereign Borders, there has been none, and I and the Australian Government are committed to ensuring that this continues. So I thank the Sri Lankan Navy for rescuing this latest vessel and preventing the other one that had attempted to get away.
Another key factor of Operation Sovereign Borders is ensuring people across the region who might contemplate a journey understand Australia's policies and the dangers of attempting such a journey. We have been telling this story since 2013 when Operation Sovereign Borders came into being, and today, I am launching a revamped campaign in support of that. The revamped campaign is called Zero Chance. It will be rolled out across 11 countries in the region, but we have chosen to launch it here in recognition of the great relationship and cooperation we have with Sri Lanka, and so Sri Lankan's will soon see new advertising and communications material appear across the country.
The Zero Chance message is simple: we want people, Sri Lankans and others across the region, to understand that Australia's strong border protection policies have not changed. No one will succeed in their attempt to reach Australia illegally by boat; anybody who claims otherwise is lying. Criminal people smugglers dupe vulnerable people by lying to them about their chances, the dangers and Australia's policies. Do not believe them. If you know of a family member or a friend thinking about illegal maritime travel to Australia, I urge you to tell them that they have zero chance, zero chance of success, zero chance of illegal migration to Australia, zero chance, full stop.
You have this cooperation with the Sri Lankan Navy, but after the events of Easter Sunday, we understand that you are also cooperating with the Sri Lankans in terms of the investigation. Can you just give us [inaudible].
Well again, I think it was a demonstration of the very close relationship between our two peoples, and all of us were horrified by the dreadful attacks on Sri Lankans and those people who were affected; the 258 who tragically lost their lives and the 500 people who were injured otherwise.
Very quickly we offered support to the Sri Lankan Government to work very closely, particularly through the Australian Federal Police, but through our agencies otherwise, coordinated by the High Commissioner here in Sri Lanka – and I really do pay tribute to the work of the Australian Federal Police, up to 20 officers in total were able to complement those who were already on the ground here in Colombo and we provided assistance in terms of the investigation, in terms of forensic analysis and provided support in a number of ways to the Sri Lankan authorities – so that there is a very much imbedded in the culture between our two organisations, the Federal Police, our intelligence agencies etc with their counterparts here.
The desire to work together wherever possible and those relationships are longstanding and I think they've been enhanced in recent months, not only as you point out, in terms of our relationship with the Navy and with Coast Guard and others; but also out of the dreadful circumstances in April. An ability to provide support, to bring those people to justice and to have a better explanation as to what happened, particularly with that ability, capacity on the forensic side that we can bring to the table and, as I say, a number of other ways in which we've been able to provide support to the Sri Lankan's and we are very proud to have been able to work with the Sri Lankan authorities.
About these 20 asylum seekers who were turned back. When were they intercepted and were they turned back?
I'll ask the Major General to provide a bit more detail, and already we've commented publicly on this venture and we've been very clear that people who seek to come by boat will never come to Australia; the 20 people who were on that vessel were screened and they were found not to be owed protection, and we worked closely with the authorities here in Sri Lanka for travel documents to be issued for those people to be returned back to Colombo.
So, that's what's taken place and Operation Sovereign Borders works in a number of ways. As I say, we have the second most generous intake of people in our refugee and humanitarian program, than as I say, any other country in the world except for Canada – we're very proud of that – but on the other hand, the other side of the equation, we've been very clear and consistent for a long period of time that people will not come by boat and our very close working relationship with the Sri Lankan Government means that anybody that attempts to come by boat will be rapidly returned back to Sri Lanka and they'll be without the money that they've paid the people smuggler.
So they'll be in a worse position when they return, which is an incentive I think, for people not to pay money and not to engage with people smugglers because people smugglers are criminals and they are lying if they tell you that you can get to Australia. So, that's the circumstance around that, but the Major General might have a few more details to provide.
I think the interception of this particular vessel highlights what I was saying earlier about our continuous maritime and air surveillance posture to our north. The vessel was intercepted trying to approach one of Australia's offshore islands, where it was detected by aerial surveillance, and we then quickly directed a vessel to go and intercept it and take it into custody. There we then did the processing and very, very quickly, as I've said, on 29 May, those people were transferred to an aircraft and flown back to Colombo.
Where did you intercept them?
Near the Cocos and Keeling Island.
And where are they now?
Well, they've been returned back to Sri Lanka so that's an issue for Sri Lanka.
Well, as I say, that's a domestic issue for Sri Lanka, not an issue for Australia.
Minister, we're talking about the security in Australia and the entire region, you were talking about the zero chances. Now, in terms of the terrorism, especially in this particular part of the country. How do you foresee that kind of threat into your country and how do you basically share the knowledge with the regional partners?
Again, we rely on the relationships which have been long standing. So, over a long period of time our people-to-people links have really been able to strengthen and to deepen and that's been very important for Sri Lanka and for Australia as well. So there is a ready exchange of information where it's appropriate to do so, whether it's in relation to returning foreign fighters; whether it might be information in relation to the illegal movement of people; it might relate to the movement of illicit drugs or tobacco for example. So there are many areas in which we do have concern about returning foreign fighters from Syria and from Iraq. We've worked very closely with our Five Eyes partners, but also with other partners as well, again, to share that information or to be the recipient of that intelligence if that's appropriate to do so in the circumstances.
We're able to provide that advice and work with neighbours in our region if we have intelligence about a prospect of somebody returning, or perhaps somebody who is accommodated within a camp at the moment and we have intelligence about that person's likely return to one of our neighbours, then we'll work very closely with our neighbours in the region. Australia provides that leadership role, but we're also the beneficiary of receiving information from our partners as well, and we want that to continue, but my point is that it's only possible because of the very close working relationships that we've been able to build up over a long period of time.
Are there any other intercepts that [inaudible]?
From Australia's perspective we don't comment in relation to those matters unless it's in our interest to do so and we have a lot of operational work in terms of surveillance, for example, both on water and in the air conducted on a regular basis. We have an intelligence cube and also information that we can gather from that surveillance so that we can decide whether or not we need to intercept a vessel, but I don't have any comment to make in relation to that at the moment.
Do you have information as to how many people and boats have been turned back from Australia up until May from the beginning of this year?
From Sri Lanka?
Well we have, over the course of Operation Sovereign Borders, so since 2013, worked very closely with Indonesia, with Vietnam, with Sri Lanka and with others, and we've been able to – particularly in the case of Sri Lanka – work very closely with the authorities here to screen people, so to verify people's identity and then make a judgment about whether or not that person is owed protection. So, in each of those cases we've been able to rely on information that we've received and repatriate people back to Sri Lanka – so obviously a number of vessels, that's been the case and elsewhere.
But we have seen a lull recently and we've just seen an uptick in activity in the last month or so which has caused us concern, and obviously the two ventures in particular – the one that we've spoken about in relation to the 20 and the one in relation to 41 people on that vessel – but before that, we'd seen a lull in activity and I think that's because of the strong stance that Australia's taken and our close work with Sri Lanka.
So we'll continue to work very closely. Again, my message is very clear; that if you seek to come to Australia by boat, you will just not be successful. Don't listen to the lies of people smugglers, don't give your money over, don't listen to family members that you might have in Australia who tell you if you pay the money then you can hop on the vessel that you'll successfully arrive in Australia because you never will.
As the Major General pointed out before, tragically, 1,200 men, women and children drowned at sea. We've been able to bring an end to that and to conduct our migration program in an orderly way. We've been able to do that in great part thanks to a very close working relationship which we have and the utmost respect that we have for our Sri Lankan colleagues. So we'll leave it there.
Thank you very much.