Australian opposition to discuss asylum issue with Sri Lanka

Two senior Australian opposition frontbenchers will travel to Sri Lanka to discuss the Coalition’s controversial policy of returning asylum-seeker boats to Sri Lanka, The Australian newspaper reported today.

Amid growing signs the revived Pacific Solution is failing to deter asylum-seekers, the Coalition indicated it planned to continue its unorthodox strategy of pursuing foreign policy from opposition.

News of the planned Sri Lanka visit by immigration spokesman Scott Morrison and foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop came as Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott last night raised the broader people-smuggling problem at a meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta.

Speaking from Jakarta, where he is travelling as part of Abbott’s delegation, Morrison said he and Bishop would visit Colombo within months, the news report said.

“We’ve still got to work through the details but it’s our plan to get there before parliament comes back next year,” he told The Australian.

He said the visit would be a prelude to the discussions a future Coalition government would initiate as part of its policy of intercepting Sri Lankan asylum-seeker boats in international waters and returning them to their country of departure.

“These visits and these meetings provide important relationship-building and context for policies that we would hope to implement if we were elected,” Mr Morrison said.

The Sri Lankan government, he said, had indicated it would be very happy to receive the brace of opposition frontbenchers.

With Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war over and claims those travelling from the island were economic refugees, Mr Morrison said there was now no reason not to work with the Sri Lankan government to return boats, provided safeguards were in place to ensure the safety of those returned.

The visit is also a response to the recent surge of asylum-seeker boats coming from south Asia, particularly Sri Lanka. The spike comes more than three years after the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, which saw an initial, but temporary, exodus of refugees to Australian shores.