Sri Lankan asylum seekers and the New Zealand response

KEITH LOCKE (Green): A week ago, on behalf of the Green Party, I sent the Minister of Immigration, Jonathan Coleman, an email suggesting that New Zealand help Australia solve its boat people crisis. The crisis came to a head because of 78 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees on an Australian customs ship, the

Oceanic Viking

, off the Indonesian island of Bintan, who wanted to go to Australia. There was another group of Tamils on an Indonesian naval ship off Java. I proposed a repeat of what we did back in 2001 when we helped Australia by taking 131 Afghans who had been picked out of the sea off Australia by the Norwegian boat, the


. New Zealand won plaudits for that humanitarian action. Over the years fair-minded Australians have said that it showed that our Government was more caring than theirs. Former Prime Minister John Howard used the


incident to whip up anti-refugee sentiment and win the 2001 election. Most New Zealanders are now proud of what we did in 2001 and proud of how well some of those Afghan refugees, known as the


boys, have done academically and in sport.

Unfortunately, Dr Coleman turned down my request to now take in some of the Tamil asylum seekers, but he did say that the Governments of both Australia and New Zealand would “continue to keep closely in touch on the issues involved.” This leaves the door open for New Zealand to share the load with Australia in the spirit of ANZAC cooperation and be part of the solution, and why not? New Zealand is so far across the Tasman Sea that asylum seekers in their rickety boats never make it to our shores. We also now get very few people claiming asylum at out airports. The total for the whole of 2008-2009 was only 23 people, a tenth of what it was in the early 2000s. The Green Party just wants us to help. We do not particularly care whether these Tamil asylum seekers come in under the annual 750-person refugee quota, as the


refugees did, or are additional to that quota.

There certainly is an argument for concentrating on Sri Lankan refugees at this time. The plight of the Tamil population in northern Sri Lanka is a dire one. In the aftermath of the civil war, hundreds of thousands of Tamils are in detention camps in miserable conditions, and they are not allowed to go home. A sense of hopelessness has set in among the Tamil population as their human rights are violated on a massive scale and they are told by the Sri Lankan Government to give up their dream for an autonomous Tamil administration in the north of the country.

New Zealand can help address this source of the refugee problem at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting* later this month. Our Prime Minister should raise this issue as one requiring the urgent attention of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group*, which is tasked with upholding human rights in Commonwealth countries. The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, or CMAG, as it is called, has been very engaged with Fiji. It would be inconsistent, to say the least, for the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group not to also engage with the Sri Lankan crisis. The Rajapaksa Government in Sri Lanka needs to get the message that there will be serious consequences if it continues to violate the democratic principles of the Commonwealth, as outlined in the Harare Commonwealth Declaration.

When Dr Coleman announced New Zealand would not take some of the Tamil asylum seekers from the

Oceanic Viking

, he said he did not want to reward queue-jumpers. The reality is that Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka today commonly cannot find a queue to sit in. They are not safe in Indonesia, which has not signed the 1951 refugee convention* and is now talking about deporting some of the Tamils back to Sri Lanka. There are three things that Mr Coleman can now do to help these desperate people on the boats: firstly, ask Indonesia not to return Tamils to possible persecution in Sri Lanka; secondly, ask Indonesia to allow the UN High Commissioner of Refugees’s officials access to all the people on the boats to determine who is a genuine refugee; and thirdly, indicate to Australia and Indonesia that New Zealand is open to taking a significant number of these UN High Commissioner of Refugees-endorsed refugees.


House of Representatives