Scott Morrison says Australia should bolster Sri Lanka's maritime resources to prevent people from leaving. Photo: Edwina Pickles
A Coalition government would tow boats back to Sri Lank to help stem the flow of asylum seekers bound for Australia, opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison says.
Mr Morrison, speaking from a tour of Australia’s detention facilities on Nauru, said Australia should also bolster Sri Lanka’s maritime resources to prevent people from leaving.
‘‘We believe the more effective way to deter [arrivals] here is firstly to support the Sri Lankan government with their interceptions at source, whether at sea or land ... Secondly, in the event that the vessels get towards Australia they should be intercepted outside of our waters and arrangements made for their immediate transfer back to Sri Lanka but into the safe hands of international agencies that are already on the ground in Sri Lanka, particularly the UNHCR and IOM.’’
Mr Morrison said the Coalition would boost Sri Lanka’s naval resources, ‘‘just like we would do where requested or where supported in Indonesia as well’’.
He said the Coalition’s tow-back policy, in which asylum boats would be returned to Indonesia where safe to do so, had been mocked by the government because Indonesia was unwilling to participate in the scheme.
‘‘But the difference is, the Sri Lankan government has expressed a keen interest in this and we would be very interested in supporting them in that, because it’s much safer to ensure that interception closer to Sri Lankan territory than Australia.
‘‘And that just seems to me to be a very practical measure that we can take with the support of the Sri Lankan government.’’
Mr Morrison said asylum seekers on Nauru faced two frustrations: their detention on Nauru, and the fact other asylum seekers in the post-August 13 contingent were being sent to Australia on bridging visas while they languished on Nauru.
‘‘The inconsistent application of that policy is exacerbating what would be normal tensions.’’
He said the conditions were ‘‘challenging’’.
‘‘The sooner we move to permanent arrangements, then I think the concerns about the facility that are there presently will fade,’’ he said.
Construction on permanent accommodation for almost 400 asylum seekers on Nauru is set to begin before Christmas following a breakthrough in negotiations between local land owners and the Nauru government.
The minister responsible for the processing centre, Mathew Batsiua, said the terms and conditions of a lease with the owners of six portions of land that covered the centre were set to be finalised on Wednesday.
But Mr Batsiua said no date had been set to open the camp and allow detainees free movement during daylight hours, despite expectations that this would have occurred by now. ‘‘Health and security checks have to be satisfied first before individuals can be allowed free movement,’’ he said.
All information relating to health had been received, but more security information had to be gathered before these checks could be completed, he said.
Mr Batsiua also confirmed that some of the asylum seekers had refused preliminary interviews in protest at the delays in processing their claims. ‘‘They are encouraged to participate, but at the end of the day they cannot be forced,’’ he said.
Nauru’s Topside camp – which is expected to house 900 asylum seekers in permanent accommodation when it is built – will have no direct access to power and water, Mr Morrison said on Thursday.
‘‘I’m of the strong view that there are better sites that were available and should have been pursued,’’ he said.
‘‘Now we’re going to have a permanent facility being constructed around a temporary facility, which will make a very challenging situation more challenging in the months ahead.
‘‘The permanent facility will have about 900 people who will be able to be accommodated on that site, on Topside.
‘‘That is a site that has no direct access to power or water. All water will have to be trucked up to that site, and if they are going to move away from the stand-alone power generation that they currently have, then obviously poles and wires are going to have to be erected. That’s one of the reasons that the Coalition did not favour the Topside site as the site for the permanent facility.’’
Mr Morrison said the choice of Topside showed the government’s hand was ‘‘forced’’ in reopening Nauru, and it was unprepared for the challenges involved.
A spokesman for Mr Bowen said, "this is all a bit rich from Scott Morrison – first he said the government wasn’t moving quick enough and now he says we’ve rushed it".
"The reality is we’d have a permanent facility on Nauru right now if the Coalition had supported the government’s proposal in late 2011.
“It’s odd for Mr Morrison to be complaining about the Topside site when this is the same site that the Coalition used for its ‘Pacific Solution’ and it has better amenity and infrastructure now than it did back then.”
An immigration department spokeswoman confirmed that water would be regularly trucked to Topside, but said the site was chosen based on the availability of land, after negotiations with landowners and the Nauruan government.