Former PM John Howard Accuses ACT Labor of ‘Greatest Assault’ on Private Ownership

Operation Sovereign Borders has begun upgrading security and facilities at the Christmas Island immigration detention centre ahead of further expected asylum boat arrivals. The move comes as people-smugglers in Sri Lanka appear to be stepping up their efforts to test Labor’s resolve, including by sending children as young as eight across the Indian Ocean. The latest group of asylum-seekers to reach Australia is the largest since August – there were 35 men, three women and three girls aged eight, 13 and 15. The group was flown back to Colombo on a Royal Australian Air Force plane after a two-hour delay on the Christmas Island tarmac due to one passenger’s medical episode. A source briefed on the operation emphatically rejected this was the reason for the delay, but there is concern that two of the asylum-seekers claimed to be having heart attacks during the previous eight days in the custody of Operation Sovereign Borders.

While each of the 41 asylum-seekers intercepted on April 30 was deemed fit to fly by an Australian doctor, the heart attack claims are worrying for border authorities who fear that people-smugglers may be wrongly advising the latest wave of desperate arrivals that illness could delay their removal from Australia. On their return to Sri Lanka, some of the failed asylum-seekers said they paid $7000 each for their spots on an old trawler. It stalled twice during 20 days at sea before the group ran out of food and water. One of the passengers, Kulendran, said he and his brother-in-law from the east coast town of Valaichchenai joined the trip with the dream of going to New Zealand. Kulendran had lived and worked in Malaysia for 18 years before he returned to Sri Lanka during the pandemic.

The latest asylum boat takes the number of known arrivals since the election to 250, after a long period of no people-smuggling activity. There were no boat arrivals in 2021 and seven in 2022, all of them during or after the federal election on May 21, 2022. Operation Sovereign Borders commander Rear Admiral Justin Jones told Senate estimates in February that there had been “a sharp increase in operational tempo” since last May. This was a direct result of Sri Lanka’s ongoing economic crisis and people-smugglers seeking to exploit the change of government, he said. “People-smugglers are using misinformation centred on the outcome of the May 2022 federal election to convince potential irregular immigrants in regional source and transit countries that now is the time to travel to Australia by boat,” Rear Admiral Jones said.

“I recently returned from a visit to Sri Lanka and am pleased that the situation is improving. However, there is a long road ahead to economic recovery.” Interviews with the latest failed asylum-seekers indicate the Australian government’s tough stance was known to at least some of them before their journey. Kulendran said he was tricked by an organiser who wanted to go to Australia because he had previously lived there for eight years. He said the organiser joined them on the journey and as the boat ran low on supplies and the engine struggled, the organiser proposed sailing close to Christmas Island to get repairs. The alleged organiser is now in custody in Colombo. “Nobody would have agreed to go to Australia as we had heard from the media that it would not be possible for us to go to Australia by boats,” Kulendran told Australian media after his court appearance in Negombo.

“We believed our journey was not to Australia but to New Zealand. We even had a New Zealand flag in our boat. “This is pre-planned by the leader for him to enter Australia,” Kulendran complained. “Towards the end there was hardly any food or water, and on top of it the engine was giving trouble. The leader came with this bright idea of entering the Australian border and telling the Australian border security the truth and get some supplies and repair the engine for us to continue the journey to New Zealand. And we agreed to that. “But as soon as we entered we were taken into custody and our boat was set on fire, which we saw with our own eyes. “Anyway, had we continued to New Zealand, Australian border security could not have taken us into custody.” New Zealand has been a favoured destination for Sri Lankan asylum-seekers since the country’s civil war, which ended in 2009.

However, no Sri Lankan asylum boat is known to have made it to New Zealand over the past 14 years. The boat that came closest was intercepted off Far North Queensland. Sri Lankans who sailed directly from their home country comprised the majority of asylum-seekers when the sustained wave of boats under Labor began in late 2008. Later, people from Afghanistan arriving from people-smuggling ventures in Indonesia outnumbered other groups. By 2013, when Labor lost government, the largest numbers of arrivals were Iranians who had also sailed from Indonesia. Ultimately, more than 50,000 people reached Australia on asylum vessels during those years, and an estimated 1200 drowned. The most recent asylum boat intercepted by Australia had started its voyage on April 11 around 11pm, as Sri Lanka was preparing to celebrate the national new year on April 13 and 14.

Kulendran believed the departure date was planned to coincide with navy personnel going on holidays. Another member of the returned group, Roshan, said that Operation Sovereign Borders held them at sea for eight days and fed them oats for breakfast, tinned fish, biscuits and chocolate at lunch, then rice and vegetables for dinner. Roshan, 45, described his disappointment at the failed venture. He said he would not attempt it again. “It was a secret game by the Australian border security. They hide us from the public and media and kept us secretly in their vessel and deported back in the middle of the night,’ Roshan said. The Sri Lankan police human trafficking unit produced each of the 41 returned asylum seekers before a Negombo magistrate on Tuesday. The three girls were released, and their mothers bailed.

Five main suspects – including the alleged leader named as Bawa – were said to hold permits from the Sri Lankan navy to go to sea. They were remanded in custody. The group included one Sinhalese person from Colombo and people from Valaichchenai, including Muslims and Tamils. A spokeswoman for Australian Border Force said it did not comment on operational matters.  This has been the position of immigration authorities since the first weeks of the Abbott government, when the Coalition ended Labor’s practice of issuing media statements about boat arrivals.At the time the Coalition took the view that this was free advertising for people smugglers, who could use the media statements to as proof of another successful venture. Since then, intercepts and turn-backs only become public when the media learns of them.

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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