What’s worse than enhanced screening?

3 Jul

Over the last few weeks, we’ve all been listening to the story of 153 Tamils intercepted by the Australian Navy unfold. The government are refusing to release information – in line with their policy – and so the facts are hard to come by.

We aren’t clear whether the boat even exists (though the people on board have been in contact with Australian refugee advocates). We don’t know for sure that they’ve been intercepted (though it happened early Saturday morning and they’re currently on board the Customs Vessel Triton). We don’t know how many there are (though we know that there are 84 men, 32 women and 37 children, for a total of 153).

The other thing that isn’t clear is what will happen to these Tamils. Or even where they’re from.

The advocates who spoke to them late Friday night via satellite phone said it wasn’t obvious whether they’re from Sri Lanka or perhaps even India.

Assuming they’re from Sri Lanka (which is my gut feeling), the thought is that they will be transferred in a ‘ship-to-ship’ operation with the Sri Lankan Navy. Customs information suggests that this transfer will happen (or has already happened) today.

That’s a little bit of good news in an otherwise vacuum of information – if they’re on the Triton or another Navy ship, they’re probably safe. But how long will that safety last?

Enhanced Screening

In all of this, the last thing we want is for the enhanced screening thing to raise its ugly head again.

Enhanced screening is easy. Australian Immigration staff ask a series of 3 or 4 questions of possible asylum seekers and then make a decision about whether they think the person might potentially have claims for protection. The process is ‘enhanced’ because it is a drastically cut down version of a screening interview used every day by Immigration Officers at our airports. That is, its enhanced for the government because its quick and easy, not for the asylum seekers.

The idea is that, if the person doesn’t indicate that they may have a claim in response to these fairly benign questions (Who are you? Where are you from? How did you get here? Why did you come?), they are sent back to where they came from – a process called ‘screening out’.

At the airport, this happens at the airlines expense. It isn’t Australia’s problem. On the Triton or Christmas Island, there is no airline involved and Australia is responsible.

When we were doing this on Christmas Island, we used to transfer hundreds of people back by ‘screening them out’. We would then charter aircraft and send them to Colombo (the Sri Lankan capital), accompanied by Australian Immigration staff.


When a Sri Lankan leaves Sri Lanka without permission from the government, they break Sri Lankan criminal law. This means that, when we transferred people back to Colombo by charter plane using the enhanced screening process, they were arrested on arrival and interrogated by Sri Lankan Immigration and Sri Lankan police.

To go some way to help prevent these ‘screened out’ Sri Lankans when they got back to Colombo, Australian Government staff would stay with them for the first few days in Sri Lanka. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) would also be present. This didn’t guarantee their safety ongoing, but it did make it much less likely that they wouldn’t be beaten up or killed as soon as they got back.


Imagine that whole enhanced screening process being done on a Customs boat. Instead of in an interview room after being seen by a medical doctor and having had an opportunity to get over any seasickness and use a toilet, those four questions are asked on a boat that is bobbing in the Indian Ocean somewhere.

The process doesn’t lend itself to really uncovering any possible claims for protection as it is, do you think doing it at sea improves the chances of discovering where Australia has an obligation?

Furthermore, the only way to conduct these interviews at sea would have been to use videoconferencing for either the Immigration Staff or the Interpreters (or both). Using interpreters diminishes the quality of the communication already, do you think doing it via Skype at sea would improve it?

If these 153 Sri Lankans are screened out (which I suspect they were), they will then be transferred to the Sri Lankan Navy who will return them to Sri Lanka (if that hasn’t already happened and assuming they’re even from Sri Lanka!)

On their return, how will the government provide any assurance that they won’t be beaten or even killed on their return? After all, the Sri Lankan government will treat them as criminals.

The reality is, the Australian Government can’t.

Everything about this situation is terrible. The lack of information may be annoying, but even from what we do know, the reality is, the way that this is clearly being resolved is a disgrace.

For more about this story, check out these articles (which quote me on this issue):


On the ABC – click here

2 Responses to “What’s worse than enhanced screening?”

  1. Sean Kelleher July 7, 2014 at 9:09 pm #

    Hi Greg.

    Great commentary, but both your links lead to the ABC, neither to the Guardian.

    • lakeliveslife July 8, 2014 at 5:56 am #

      Ah. Thanks Sean. Will update. Cheers

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