Australia’s newly elected conservative government has ordered a clampdown on releasing information about the arrival of asylum seekers.
In what human rights groups and lawyers are calling an attempt to gag debate on an issue that has divided the country, authorities will no longer provide details whenever refugee boats arrive in Australian waters or sink during their voyage.
Instead the number of boat people arrivals and other relevant information will only be disclosed at a weekly briefing. The intermittent blackout is designed to safeguard operational security and avoid alerting people-smuggling syndicates, the Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, said.
“It’s not the government’s job to run a shipping news service for the people smugglers,” said Mr Morrison.
The government has appointed an army officer to head Operation Sovereign Borders. Lieutenant General Angus Campbell’s job will be to halt the steady flow of asylum seekers who have made their way from Indonesia to Christmas Island in recent years.
However, the policy will be seen in some quarters as just the latest right-wing measure employed by Australia’s new government, which has already faced criticism over the lack of women in Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s new cabinet and the scrapping of a climate-change agency, all within the first week of the new government.
Since 2007 some 45,000 refugees have attempted to sail to Australia, with an estimated 400 boats arriving in the past year alone.
Under the government’s tough new stance, recent arrivals will not stay long in Australian territory. More than half of the 523 people who have arrived in the past fortnight have already been flown to processing centres in Papua New Guinea.
The perceived attempt to muzzle media coverage of boat people arrivals has been condemned. Tony Kerin, of the Australian Lawyers’ Association, said: “Our community has a right to know what’s happening on our borders when it happens, not just when the government feels like releasing the information.”