BEIRUT: The Australian Embassy had sent media releases to mayors and MPs in north Lebanon highlighting the country’s stringent policy on illegal immigrants and warning against people smugglers who exploit asylum seekers, an embassy spokesperson Wednesday confirmed to The Daily Star.
In an attempt to discourage Lebanese citizens from attempting the perilous maritime journeys in the hands of people smugglers to Australia, the embassy circulated a number of media releases at the beginning of September, the spokesperson, who declined to be identified, said.
As well as being distributed to media outlets, the releases were targeted at public representatives in Akkar and Tripoli in north Lebanon, areas the spokesperson said the Embassy is “aware people are travelling to Indonesia and then to Australia from.”
The releases were also published on the Embassy’s website.
Earlier Wednesday MP Kazem al-Kheir said in a radio interview that the Australian Embassy had alerted Lebanese officials of fraud against Lebanese a week before the Indonesia boat tragedy.
On Friday, a boat carrying 80 immigrants, including dozens of Lebanese, seeking to illegally enter Australia sank off the coast of Indonesia. Just 18 immigrants survived the sinking, but only 36 bodies have been recovered since the accident. It is unclear how many of the deceased are Lebanese.
“ The Australian Embassy in Lebanon sent a memo to Lebanese officials and security officials nearly a week before the Indonesian ferry sank, informing them about fraud against Lebanese seeking illegal immigration to Australia,” Kheir told the Voice of Lebanon radio station.
The first of the Australian Embassy releases, issued on July 19, outlines changes in Australian immigration policy, stating clearly that “as of today asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia.”
It explains that under a new agreement – the Regional Resettlement Arrangement – signed with Papua New Guinea, unauthorized arrivals in Australia will be sent to Papua New Guinea where their qualification for refugee status will be appraised.
It also emphasizes that resettlement in Australia will only be achievable through legal international channels and not “through criminal operators who have pushed people onto unseaworthy vessels with tragic consequences.”
“No doubt there will be some people smugglers who now encourage asylum seekers to test our resolve,” the release cautions.
The second release, issued Aug. 22, confirms that since the introduction of the new immigration policy Lebanese citizens had sought to enter Australia illegally.
“The Department of Immigration and Citizenship today [Aug. 22] confirmed the transfer to Papua New Guinea of a ninth group of 40 asylum seekers subject to the new Regional Settlement Arrangement,” it said. This group included “10 Iranians, three Iraqis, 26 Lebanese and one Syrian,” it added.
In a third release, issued two days after the second, Australia confirms the transfer of further Lebanese citizens under the RSA.
“The Department of Immigration and Citizenship today confirmed the second transfer of family groups under the Regional Settlement Arrangement to the regional processing centre in Nauru,” it said.
The transfer from Christmas Island of 12 adults and 11 children included Lebanese, Iranian and Afghan nationalities, it added.
The Embassy spokesperson told The Daily Star that a decision was made to send these media releases to Lebanese officials and media outlets in early September when the embassy “became aware that there were some Lebanese nationals among the asylum seekers transferred to Papua New Guinea under the new arrangement.”
The spokesperson added that at that point the embassy thought it important to alert officials and raise awareness of the issue.
However, Kheir, who represents Minyeh in north Lebanon, said that although mayors and security agencies had in turn been informed, “they did not have enough time to create awareness.”
Separately, the departure of an official Lebanese delegation to Indonesia to oversee the repatriation of more than 40 Lebanese nationals was delayed by eight hours due to logistical problems, a source at Beirut airport said.
The source said that the 12-member delegation, led by the head of the Higher Relief Committee Ibrahim Bashir, arrived at Beirut airport for the 11:50 a.m. flight to Indonesia only to find out that their visas had not arrived.
If all goes well, the delegation plans to take the 7:45 p.m. flight to Jakarta, the source added.