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  • Press Conference with Major General Andrew Bottrell, Commander JATF
Subject: Operation Sovereign Borders, Syrian Refugees, Safe Schools, political prisoners, Nauru


Peter Dutton: Thank you very much for being here. I'm very pleased to be here with Major General Andrew Bottrell, the great officer who heads up Operation Sovereign Borders.

Tomorrow marks 600 days since the last successful people smuggling venture to our country and the Government is absolutely determined to make sure that it stays that way.

Boats bringing, or attempting to bring, illegal maritime arrivals to Australia will be turned back where it's safe to do so and the Government is resolute as we've ever been in staring down the continuing threat from people smugglers.

This Government has stopped the boats and that doesn't mean that the problem has gone away. In recent weeks, Operation Sovereign Borders has intercepted two boats and the General will provide further information in relation to that shortly.

Since Operation Sovereign Borders began, 25 boats carrying 698 people have been turned back and safely returned to their country of departure.

The flow of intelligence and recent research informs us that we must remain resolute and vigilant because people smugglers and their operations continue and we stare that threat down on a regular basis.

We do know that 14,000 people are positioned in Indonesia. They are prepared to hop on boats and that is not to speak of the threat that exists in other countries in the region.

We want to make sure that our assets, both on the water and in the air, will continue to be as effective as they have been in the past and the General will provide some further information in relation to that.

We have said for a long time that we want to be a government that stops boats, but also gets kids out of detention.

I want to report to you today that the number of children in detention has now been reduced to 29 and that number will continue to go down as I consider further cases and try to make arrangements for community detention otherwise.

I am determined to be the Minister that not only stops the boats, but gets kids out of detention andto that have number at 29 heading towards zero is a significant outcome, I'm very proud of it, but there is a lot of work to do.

The composition as I've explained to you before within the detention centres has changed quite dramatically as well. Bearing in mind that there were 10,300 plus people in detention under Labor, the number now of people who have arrived by boats has reduced to well under 1,000.

There has been an increase in the number of people in detention because of visa cancellations and overstayers, so our compliance activities have increased significantly.

We've been able to not only secure our borders, but also make our community a safer place by cancelling the visas now of 84 Outlaw Motorcycle Gang members and well over 1,000 people in total, including people who have committed rapes, sexual offences against children, armed robberies and other serious offences.

That is a significant outcome, but the point is that the composition within the detention centre network has changed quite dramatically. Where, under Labor, well over 90% of those people in detention had come off boats, that number obviously has reduced quite significantly.

This is a major achievement, but the work must continue because the people smugglers and those syndicates are out there trying to put people on to boats.

Twelve hundred people drowned at sea under Labor's watch and they apologised for that. No people have drowned under our watch and I want to make sure we continue for that to be the case.

I will hand over to the General now.

Majgen Bottrell: Thanks very much Minister.

Ladies and gentlemen, as the Minister said, tomorrow is a significant milestone for Operation Sovereign Borders – 600 days since the last successful arrival, and remembering that even that arrival, the individuals of those were sent to regional processing centres.

More importantly, it is significantly longer again since the last known death at sea for someone trying to reach Australia by an illegal people smuggling vessel.

We know that as a result directly of our efforts, and in conjunction with partner countries, the people smuggling networks have been severely degraded and we know the willingness of potentially illegal immigrants is at an all-time low at this point in time.

As the Minister said, we know that there are around 14,000 people in Indonesia who could be easily convinced to get on to a boat to travel to Australia on a risky people smuggling venture and that there are significantly larger numbers again in other regional countries.

Even though those networks have been degraded and that the willingness of most PI's have been reduced, there are still occasional tests of our settings and of our deterrence framework.

During February, we returned a group of potentially illegal immigrants to Sri Lanka in cooperation with the Sri Lankan Government. Earlier this month we assisted in the return of a group to Indonesia.

In conjunction with partner countries, in addition to the 698 people who have been returned from 25 people smuggling boats, in conjunction with partner countries around 57 additional people smuggling ventures have been disrupted which has resulted in a further 1,900 people not getting on to a risky people smuggling venture bound for Australia.

We know that people smugglers are continuing to try and use any excuse to convince people to get on to a boat. As a result of that, our deterrence framework has been reinforced significantly.

The recent commissioning of the Australian Defence Vessel Ocean Protector is the first measure. The second is the significant upgrade of its sister ship, the Australian Border Force cutter Ocean Shield.

We have also increased our presence of response vessels across the likely approaches to Australia and we've also increased our aerial surveillance more broadly.

So as you can see, our ability to be able to detect and stop illegal people smuggling boats has only increased.

Our achievements to date in tackling the people smuggling trade could not have been delivered without the significant work of a highly dedicated group of people.

I'd like to acknowledge today, again, the work of the men and women of the Australian Border Force, the Australian Defence Force, the non-uniformed public service members and a group of highly competent contractors who collaboratively work together under some very tough conditions on a permanent basis to ensure the safety of lives at sea and the continued integrity of the nation's borders.

Ladies and gentlemen, thanks very much.

Peter Dutton: Thanks, General. Are there any questions?

Journalist: Can I ask for an update on the situation with the 12,000 Syrian refugees?

Peter Dutton: Sure. One of the things I want to stress in relation to our intake of the Syrian refugees is the number goes beyond 12,000.

Already the Government has, as part of the programme 4,850 within the existing programme of 13,750 people who will come from Syria and Iraq.

So we have already had in place a programme where people have come to our country under the existing programmes and, as I've committed to previously, we will increase that number within the total program to 18,750 by 2018-19.

There is potential for us to increase the number of Syrians that we could take depending on circumstances over the coming years, but that's a judgment that can be made at the time. So that is in addition to the 12,000 that we've committed to under the programme.

So to give you an update as at 13 March, on the advice available to me, about 9,000 people have been interviewed and assessed-in and are being processed through health, security and character checks.

More than 1,600 visas have been granted to people displaced by the conflict in Syria and Iraq. More than 300 people have arrived and settled in Australia. That's a combination under both programmes and we will see more people arriving shortly.

The other point to recognise in relation to this issue as well is that people come through the United Nations pathway, so referrals from the UN, if we accept those referrals.

They also come through the Special Humanitarian Programme. Under that programme, it means somebody in Australia or an organisation within Australia can sponsor people out of Syria, so family living in Australia now that know they have family in Syria that are under threat, they can come through the Special Humanitarian Programme.

Because that's a sponsored program as opposed to bringing people through the UN channel, we issue visas, but we don't have sight, if you like, over when those people will arrive. So some of them will decide to finish up activities or they'll have reasons as to why they haven't travelled to Australia as yet. We've issued those visas, some 1600 as I say, but we don't have an ability to know exactly when it will suit them to travel. That's, as it always has been, in that particular programme.

I think as a country we should be very proud of the fact we have done a couple of things here. One is that we have provided support to people coming from a war-torn country and as we all know, the situation deteriorates. Maybe there is some stabilisation possible at the moment in Syria, but 7 million people are displaced. The

reconstruction, even if there was to be a ceasefire tomorrow, the reconstruction will go on for many, many years.

The second aspect to it is we are not going compromise on our national security.

We have been very clear about the fact we want to take biometric samples, or collections of biometrics, from each of the individuals and run those through our intelligence partners and as those checks are done, more people will arrive. I think that's what you would expect us to do.

Journalist: Is the Government concerned about a large group of refugees from Syria settling in the one place, for example, in Western Sydney?

Peter Dutton: It will depend on a number of circumstances. If people are coming through the SHP, through that line, it will depend on where the sponsors are. If people are living in Tasmania or Western Sydney, wherever it might be, generally it would be the case people would take up residence close to the sponsors that have sponsored them into Australia.

It's a different scenario for people coming through the UN programme because, generally speaking, the settlement services, and this is a question for Minister Porter, but settlement services are particularly around English language, around trying to provide cultural awareness and support services in the community otherwise.

Generally those services are delivered within major cities or major regional centres so you'll see a concentration there.

I would like to see people as they come from Syria and Iraq to live around the country. I think that would be a good outcome for them because Australia is a very diverse nation. Particularly in regional areas there is a demand for low-skilled work, particularly within the agricultural sector, so there are opportunities.

The other reason that it's important is that the State Governments have expressed a willingness to settle people in each State and Territory. So I think there is a desire to see people move around the country. That's the desire of the State Premiers and if we can help facilitate that, I think that'd be a good outcome.

Journalist: Mr Dutton, can I ask you another issue?

Peter Dutton: Sure.

Journalist: Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott has signed this petition that expresses concern about the Safe Schools programme.

What's your view on that programme? Do you think that it's reasonable to have legitimate concerns with that?

Peter Dutton: Look Joe, lots of people have commented on this issue.

My response is that people express their views within the partyroom and express their views to leadership if they've got concerns. I think it's best those issues aren't publicly aired.

It's not an area of my responsibility. I'm happy to take questions on matters in immigration and border protection, but I don't have any comment to make in relation to aspects of Cabinet colleagues' portfolios.

Journalist: Just on immigration, Minister, and the recent meeting with Iran. What assurances has the Government been given in regards to the treatment of failed asylum seekers if they're returned?

Peter Dutton: Obviously we're keen to see people returned to Iran if they're not found to be refugees. For many people, they've sought to come to our country because they want to get a better job, they want to have access to the health system, to the education system, to the social welfare system in our country.

It is very hard to sustain an argument that person is more worthy of a place given that the number of places are limited within the refugee programme than say somebody who is coming from war-torn Syria that's had their family attacked or abducted or killed.

So our priority is to try and make sure we settle people that have the highest need. If we've got situations, including people that have come from Iran, where they haven't been able to establish themselves as legitimate refugees, then we expect them to return to their country of origin as soon as possible.

There are over 400 people who volunteered to return to Iran between 2013 and 2015 and there was a difficulty in trying to have documentation processed by the Iranian authorities around the middle of 2015. Now we have expressed our concerns about that because it does mean that people that would want to voluntarily return to Iran haven't been able to do so since that time.

So we have had assurances from the Minister. Minister Bishop and I spoke to the Minister about this issue and we have been given assurances that those voluntarily returns will be facilitated by the Iranians.

That is a good thing because I want to get people off Nauru and off Manus as quickly as possible, but if they are not permitted to go back to their country of origin then it makes it very difficult.

So as quickly as we can get people of Nauru and Manus, as quickly as I can get kids out of detention, making sure that all the time that we can stop the boats from restarting and new people arriving to fill up those vacancies – that's our desire and there should be no surprise in that.

Journalist: Back on Syria. You mentioned that there have been 1,600 visas granted and that leaves you know 10,000 more.

Is there any updated timeline on when the 12,000 will be granted visas?

Peter Dutton: I don't have an updated timeline, but as I say 9,000 people have been interviewed. They have been assessed in and they are being processed through those checks.

The Attorney General and I were in Washington a few weeks ago and we received security briefings there. There is a concern about people who are trying to present themselves as coming from Syria. There is a trade in Syrian passports and people being issued with false documents, so we need to make sure that we can go though and scrutinise the applications.

The other aspect to it as well is that we have received a large number of applications from sponsors onshore in Australia as I spoke of before. That takes an extra level of scrutiny – more so than say what the Canadians face if they are just taking people from the UN referrals out of camps like Zatri because people that have been there for a long period of time have had their individual cases assessed in detail.

If we receive an application fresh today we need to establish the bonfides of the applicant – that they are somebody that needs to be prioritised within the 12,000 – and that is a more prolonged period required to establish the bonafides that somebody who has had their case already scrutinised and been in a camp for a number of years. I mean that's just an expression of common sense.

So that is why it has taken longer and there is not going to be a compromise in any one of these cases. We are not going to compromise on our national security. I want to make sure that we can provide additional support into the future because I think the need will be there for a long period of time to come.

If we don't get it right in the 12,000, I think that the Australian public will question why we want to provide further assistance into the future. So I think that's a legitimate position to take.

Journalist: And I guess on the second response if I can follow up. You mentioned earlier there was a group returned to Sri Lanka in February and a group returned to Indonesia this month.

Were they groups that were already in immigration detention or were they a boat turn back?

Peter Dutton: No they were boats.

Journalist: Just to clarify.

Peter Dutton: So they were vessels.

Journalist: So just specifically on the number from the 12,000, I think you said 300, but that's from both. Have you got the exact number just from the 12,000?

Peter Dutton: As I'm advised David, and I haven't had an update today, but the last advice that I received is that there have been 26 that have come in the 12,000,

but a significant number in the pipeline. And, as I say, well over a 1,000 visas have been issued, but really up to those people as to when they travel. That is taken out of our hands if you like.

But the headline number is 9,000 that have been interviewed that have been assessed-in and we are going through the security and health and character checks to make sure that they are the right people who are worthy of support.

Journalist: Mr Dutton, are you comfortable with the concept of Chinese political prisoners being detained here in Australia under arrangements struck with Beijing?

Peter Dutton: I don't think that's a question for my portfolio with respect Joe. So if you want to direct that to the Foreign Minister, I think that's the most appropriate lace for it.

Journalist: Just one more question on Nauru, Minister. Do you have any concerns about reports that Australian news broadcasts are being blocked by the Government?

Peter Dutton: I haven't seen those reports. There is a lot of misinformation around in particular that's reported by two or three news outlets that's completely inaccurate based on gossip on Twitter, based on rumour - not on fact.

The fact is that the Australian Government has provided a significant amount of support to Nauru. The Nauruan's are good people and we have provided millions of dollars, tens of millions of dollars, to help build hospitals, medical centres, help provide support around education, around meals, around providing payments to people.

The misreporting of some information is motivated by other matters and sadly the Nauruan's get fingered for that too regularly by people in the Australian media who should know better. It's only at the margins I accept that, but none the less, it puts out misinformation that others might then take as facts.

So I haven't seen the media reports and I don't have any comment to make in relation to it, but the general comment that I would make is that we have a good friend in Nauru and we will continue to work with Nauru.

We will continue as best we can to return those people and provide assistance to return those people to their country of origin where they are not found to be owed protection.

At the same time, because we have been able to stop the boats, because we have been able to get kids out of detention, we have been able to increase the number of refugees that we bring into our country through an orderly process and that is one of the most significant achievements of the Turnbull Government.

We will continue to make sure that we can stop the boats and get the kids out of detention. I am adamant that we will do that and I'm working toward that objective every day.

Thank you very much.
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