Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has suggested the Coalition’s border protection policies are leading to a decreased number of asylum seekers arriving in Indonesia.
Mr Morrison says the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia has fallen 80 per cent since Operation Sovereign Borders began four months ago.
He said trend is supported by a decrease in the arrival of asylum seekers in Indonesia as well.
“The number of persons newly presenting to the UNHCR in Jakarta for registration per month has fallen from 1,608 in September to just 296 in December,” he said.
The head of the Government’s border protection operation, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, says it is too early to declare the policies a success.
“While I’m encouraged by this, I’m not complacent, there’s more to be done,” he said.
“It will only be after the monsoon season ends in late March that I’ll be able to be in a position to confidently offer an assessment of how the operation’s going.”
Mr Morrison also defended a change in the way information is provided to the public.
He yesterday revealed he will no longer hold weekly media conferences about the operation, saying it has moved into a new phase.
Instead, a weekly statement on the number of arrivals will be released and media conferences and interviews will be held “as needed”.
Lieutenant General Campbell says the public will be notified immediately in the event of a serious incident, such as the loss of life.
But he says real-time information on operational strategies will not be released.
“This approach has been developed so as to not give tactical advantage to people smugglers, avoid providing official material that may be used to manipulate or confuse illegal immigrants, protect our people in the conduct of their duties,” he said.
“The approach provides for the operational integrity necessary to underpin success.
“I appreciate this approach is not well received by some and there are many different audiences with different expectations of what information should be made available to the public.”
Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says the Government has broken an election promise by putting an end to the briefings.
He says the Prime Minister promised greater transparency before the election.
“Tony Abbott said – in fact a direct quote before the election – they said ‘I absolutely accept you need to know how we’re going and if we have a good week, a bad week or an in-between week, we’ll let you know all about it,'” Mr Shorten said.
“Now what they’ve done is cancelled briefings and they’ve now decided they’ll tell Australians when the Government thinks Australians need to know.”
Campbell confirms Customs bought lifeboats
Lieutenant General Campbell also confirmed Customs has bought large lifeboats to deploy as part of Operation Sovereign Borders.
But he would not comment on how or when those lifeboats would be used.
Earlier this month, media reports suggested the Government was considering using lifeboats to send asylum seekers rescued from unseaworthy vessels back to Indonesia.
At the time, the Government refused to comment on the reports.
“We’ve acquired them to be part of the range of measures that we have at play,” Lieutenant General Campbell said.
“Clearly a lifeboat is involved, potentially, in those on-water activities that we don’t discuss, and so I’m not going to go further in that space.”
Mr Morrison also defended exempting Defence personnel on border protection operations from parts of Australia’s workplace health and safety laws.
The change, made last month, means personnel intercepting asylum seeker boats are now exempt from their obligation to take reasonable care to ensure their own safety and that of others.
Mr Morrison says the measure simply shifts legal liability from the individual to the Government.
“The Government takes responsibility for the policies it’s enacting and that’s what these measures reflect,” he said.
“We ask much of the people who go out there and protect our borders, and these measures are put in place to support and protect them.”
Reports of restricted access to sanitary products rejected
Meanwhile, Mr Morrison has rejected claims that female asylum seekers are being denied access to sanitary products in detention.
Feminist group Destroy the Joint is urging supporters to send unused pads and tampons to Mr Morrison’s office after reports that the Government had restricted access to the products.
Mr Morrison says the reports are false and has labelled the protest juvenile and disappointing.
“All that does is frankly undermine the credibility when other claims are made,” he said.
“That was a ridiculous protest. The policy hasn’t changed. It’s been the same for years.
“There’s open and continued access, on demand [and] female welfare officers, all those sorts of things.”
Christmas Island hunger strike under control, says Morrison
Mr Morrison also says the hunger strike among asylum seekers on Christmas Island is “under control”.
The ABC has been told tensions are rising inside the detention centre and that some asylum seekers have been harming themselves.
There have been reports of six asylum seekers sewing their lips together.
Mr Morrison says there are often incidents across the detention network.
“This particular incident is under control, it’s being managed by the service provider at the time,” he said.
“I get regular updates about what’s happening there. It’s a difficult environment when you’ve had… some people on Christmas Island now for some time.”
By Julie Doyle, staff