Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Afghan Refugees to Australia Crisis

Delivered in Plenary 6th September 2001

On 26 August, the Norwegian freighter Tampa rescued 433 Afghans and four crew members from a fishing vessel that had set sail from Indonesia. The captain was given permission to proceed to the Indonesian port of Merak after which he was put under duress and forced to sail towards Australian waters. BBC's Newsnight programme believe that a great number of these asylum-seekers set-out from a refugee camp in Pakistan, paying about £4,500 sterling each to be taken illegally to Australia. Apparently, the going rate for Germany is £7 - 8,000 pounds and for Britain - the asylum-seekers destination of choice - the cost is about £10,000.

Under these circumstances the Australian government was perfectly entitled to exercise its right under international law to secure its borders by refusing the hijacked ship access to Australian waters. Nor do its obligations under the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention apply until an asylum-seeker is actually present on its territory.

The Convention itself, introduced before the age of mass jet travel, was a response to the horrors of Nazism and designed to protect the principle of asylum. However, as we are all aware it is increasingly abused by economic migrants who pass through several safe but poor countries in order to reach Europe, North America or Australasia. In Britain over 100,000 people claimed asylum last year, the great majority of them unfounded. But it remains profitable for criminal traffickers to ply their trade because appeals can be strung-out for years and even when unsuccessful almost no-one is deported. Australia's problem is also our problem and we need urgently to face-up to the need to secure our borders and remove those who enter illegally. There is widespread concern throughout Europe, and the Commission should urgently develop policies in this area. We need also to exert severe pressure on those countries which refuse to accept their own nationals. In fact we need to totally renegotiate the 51 Convention and think again. I salute Prime Minister John Howard’s robust and courageous stance over this issue.