SARAH FERGUSON: I’m joined by the Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison. You’ve said variously this week that these people are economic migrants. How did you determine that?
SCOTT MORRISON: People who are Tamils in India are not subject to persecution as a result of their Tamil ethnicity, and that is, I think, widely understood. It’s certainly my understanding of it and it’s certainly the assurances that have been provided by the Indian Government. I mean, the UNHCR themselves have recognised that India has provided a safe haven for Tamils for decades.
SARAH FERGUSON: Just a moment. I mean, there are plenty of people we accept as refugees who come through transit countries. You have called these people economic migrants.
SCOTT MORRISON: Well, I think they are, Sarah.
SARAH FERGUSON: Have you heard their cases for asylum? You’re aware that they’ve all made cases.
SCOTT MORRISON: Sarah, I think the suggestion that Tamils fleeing India allegedly because they’re being persecuted in India because they’re Tamils just, I think, doesn’t bear up to the international experience and the recognition of the Indian Government’s provision of safe haven to Tamils in India for a very, very long time. Frankly, I think it’s quite offensive to India, Sarah.
SARAH FERGUSON: I’m just – actually, I’m just a little bit confused there and I think – well, I think actually I’m a little confused and I suspect therefore the audience is confused. Why are their claims for persecution necessarily about their time in India? Those claims may just as well apply, or far more likely, in fact, apply to their lives in Sri Lanka. Now what do you know about them that enables you to assert so clearly that they have no claim for persecution from their time in Sri Lanka?
SCOTT MORRISON: Sarah, I have made no comment in relation to Sri Lanka. I have made a comment in relation to them leaving India and my comment’s in relation to them leaving India. And that’s why I’ve been working with the Indian Government to come to an arrangement where many of them who have been resident in India for a very long time could be considered for return. Now, they may well have wished to return to India rather than the other options that are on the table here, which is obviously offshore processing.
SARAH FERGUSON: Now do you think that anybody listening to you during this week would have heard anything other than the Immigration Minister asserting that these people are economic migrants?
SCOTT MORRISON: Well I can’t speak for what people hear and think based on the reporting this week, Sarah. I couldn’t possibly do that. My position, I think, has been crystal clear. People have left India and the suggestion was that people were being persecuted in India, and my simple statement was is that’s obviously a nonsense.
SARAH FERGUSON: But you’d be well aware now from the evidence in your own case in the High Court that they’re making asylum claims and that some of the claims refer to, as I understand it, their lives in Sri Lanka, not in India. So would you like to take the opportunity to amend that statement?
SCOTT MORRISON: No, I – there’s no need to amend the statement. I’m simply saying the people saying they’re being – fleeing persecution in India – remember – and those comments have been made by their own lawyers this week, asserting that it’s possible that this could be the case. Well I just don’t think that bears out with the international experience and it certainly doesn’t bear out with India’s track record of how they’ve treated Tamils in India. That’s why we’ve been working to provide the opportunity for people to go back to India. Now there’s an opportunity to do this under the arrangement we’ve come to with the Indian Government.
SARAH FERGUSON: Just while we’re on that, Indian Government, just briefly, will the Indians accept forcible returns?
SCOTT MORRISON: Well the first step is: will they agree to meet with consular officials? Now the normal process is that no consular official can be forced on an individual, and if they’re receiving advice, whether it’s from lawyers or advocates or others, to refuse that, then they will be passing up the opportunity to potentially return to India where they were safe. Now, if they choose not to do that, then that’s a matter for them, and it could be possible that all of them may choose not to speak to Indian consular officials, and in so doing, they will pass up an opportunity to – potentially to be reunited with their families in India.
SARAH FERGUSON: I think people would be very confused with Sri Lankans sent to see – or having Indian officials sent to see Sri Lankans. But let’s move on because there are some other topics to cover here.
SCOTT MORRISON: Well, no, no, no, Sarah, you’ve raised that point, so let me address it. They’ve been living in India, the vast majority of people on this vessel, for a very long time and they have family in India and so what I have done…
SARAH FERGUSON: Do you know that the majority of people on this boat – you are asserting that they have lived in India for a very long time, the majority?
SCOTT MORRISON: That is our understanding of who’s on this vessel. Now, we are providing an opportunity for them to go back to India and they could make that request to Indian consular officials over the course of the next week. Now, if advocates are telling them they shouldn’t talk to consular officials, then I question whether they’re acting in their best interests…
SARAH FERGUSON: All right, let’s move on.
SCOTT MORRISON: … because they will pass up that opportunity. It is rare for India to concede bringing back someone who was not a citizen. Now they’re prepared to do that, they told me, for humanitarian reasons, and if advocates are going to deny them that opportunity, then where they end up will be very much a consequence of that decision.
SARAH FERGUSON: They were at sea for a very long time. Why didn’t you just take them straight to India?
SCOTT MORRISON: Well, we were working towards that objective.
SARAH FERGUSON: And did India say no?
SCOTT MORRISON: We discussed three options with India.
SARAH FERGUSON: No, did India say no?
SCOTT MORRISON: Well, let me tell you what we discussed with India. We discussed three options. One was that they could be taken to India, where that process which I’ve talked about, their identity and so on, could be assessed. That was not accepted by India. It could also be done on the ship and that was logistically difficult to get Australian Indian consular officials to that ship, and so in those circumstances, we chose to do it this way. Now, we’ll see how it goes. But if the outcome of this is that no-one chooses to talk to Indian consular officials, then the Government’s policy is very clear and they will go to offshore processing and that’s where their claims will be assessed. They will never, ever be resettled in Australia and that will be the outcome and nor will they ever be able to probably ever go back to India again.
SARAH FERGUSON: Was there any attempt to take them to India on orange life boats?
SCOTT MORRISON: Well, I don’t discuss those sorts of operational matters, Sarah.
SARAH FERGUSON: Well, in this case, it’s not like a normal on-water matter.
SCOTT MORRISON: Well it was very on-water.
SARAH FERGUSON: We’re talking about potentially a much longer journey. Were the orange life boats a consideration in this case? It’s passed now.
SCOTT MORRISON: The Government always considers all of our operational options that are available to us. We work through a methodical process …
SARAH FERGUSON: But does that mean you did consider the orange life boats?
SCOTT MORRISON: Well, I always reserve those options to us, as does Lieutenant-General Campbell. But when and where and how we do those things, they’re operational matters.
SARAH FERGUSON: So how far were you prepared to send people on those orange life boats? This is a very different scenario to sending people back to Java.
SCOTT MORRISON: Well, Sarah, you’re now getting into operational details, which you know is not Government’s policy to discuss, based on that advice I have from Lieutenant-General Campbell.
SARAH FERGUSON: Just to go back to the principles at work here, the bottom line is that you made a decision, I think, on 1st July that you were going to send these people back without finding out whether they had an asylum claim. That breaches the basic principle of international law. Are you comfortable with that?
SCOTT MORRISON: Well, Sarah, I reject the assertion you’ve just made. You’ve just asserted that I was seeking to take them back to Sri Lanka based on your own argument before that they were fleeing Sri Lanka from persecution. The Government has made – the Government has made …
SARAH FERGUSON: I beg your pardon. I’m actually going on what the Prime Minister …
SCOTT MORRISON: Well, hang on, you asked the question. You might let me finish it.
SARAH FERGUSON: Well let me just tell you – you said on my own assertion; it’s actually not. I’m quoting Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister, who said, “I would expect most of the people on that boat to go back that their countries of origin,” plural, so presumably that included Sri Lanka. Did it?
SCOTT MORRISON: Well what he was referring to was the place from where they’ve come from and the origin of that voyage was India. Now …
SARAH FERGUSON: “Countries” – he said “countries of origin”. Did you – let me just make the question very clear, Mr Morrison: did you consider sending them back to Sri Lanka?
SCOTT MORRISON: There was no attempt during the course of that past month, there was no discussion with the Government of Sri Lanka about people on that voyage going back to Sri Lanka and I’ll tell you why: that voyage did not come from Sri Lanka. It came from India. People were living in India or had transited through India and there is an opportunity for them to return to India, if they choose to speak to Indian consular officials, and if they choose not to do that, I assume on the advice of lawyers and advocates and others, and why they would do that against what is possibly in their best interests, others would have to explain.
SARAH FERGUSON: Let me just move on. The Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs says that virtually all of the 174 children on Christmas Island are sick. Children are self-harming, biting themselves, banging into furniture, swallowing poisons. How can this possibly be justified?
SCOTT MORRISON: Well, I don’t believe that’s true, for a start. Under this government we’ve reduced the number of children in detention by almost 35 per cent. The number of children on Christmas Island has dramatically reduced by over 60 per cent. Under this government, we’ve funded children going to school in detention. On Nauru, we’ve funded the establishment of facilities, including schools …
SARAH FERGUSON: That – actually, as you are aware, that wasn’t my question. You’re saying that Gillian Triggs is making up the evidence about the sickness of children?
SCOTT MORRISON: I don’t think there is evidence of the claim that the high – the Human Rights Commissioner has made in the way that she has made it. These are difficult environments and appropriate care is provided by our people. I think they’re quite sensational claims that have been made. She herself is not a doctor and we have medical people who are there who provide that care on a daily basis.
SARAH FERGUSON: All right. Just very briefly, because we need to clear this up before we go. So there’s no confusion over the orange boats; you did consider the use of the orange boats to return those asylum seekers to India?
SCOTT MORRISON: Sarah, I’m not going to let you put words in my mouth. What I am saying is the Government reserves its right to exercise any and every option that we choose is in the Australian national interest. And that is always my position. I haven’t commented specifically on the matter you’ve referred to because that’s not my practice to do that.
SARAH FERGUSON: Scott Morrison, thank you very much indeed for joining us.
SCOTT MORRISON: Thanks, Sarah.