Houston takes up role as envoy on asylum seekers

The Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers comprised by Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, Professor Michael L’Estrange and Paris Aristotle released their report at Parliament House in Canberra on Monday 13 August 2012. Photo: Andrew Meares

Angus Houston. Photo: Andrew Meares

Angus Houston. Photo: Andrew Meares

Former defence chief Angus Houston has quietly been appointed Australia’s special envoy on a asylum seekers in a bid by the Gillard government to build support for a regional solution to people smuggling and better protection for refugees.

Confirming the appointment to Fairfax Media, the Prime Minister said it had not been announced because the nature of the role was ”quiet diplomacy” through direct talks with the key source and transit countries.

”I have asked Angus to move around the region and talk to people about this issue,” Julia Gillard said, as Mr Houston returned from his first eight-day mission to Sri Lanka, Thailand and Pakistan.

Ms Gillard said she had not asked Mr Houston to undertake negotiations on the Malaysian people-swap agreement.

”This is about what can be achieved beyond that through the Bali process and the regional framework,” she said.

Mr Houston leaves for Indonesia on Tuesday for his second mission – to prepare the ground for the fifth meeting of ministers involved in the Bali process on regional co-operation early next month.

The appointment was made against the backdrop of a sharp increase in boat arrivals this year – 1900 asylum seekers in 33 boats, compared with 1209 last year.

But an optimistic Mr Houston said that, if the comparison was with the number of arrivals just before Christmas, there was a ”pleasing trend”, largely because increased co-operation had stemmed the flow of arrivals from Sri Lanka. He said he was seeking to build on the work of the expert panel he chaired last year, saying: ”I feel – and I think just about everybody feels – that a regional approach is the only way we are going to come to grips with what is a truly wicked problem of major proportions.”

His task was to strengthen high-level political engagement with key source, transit and resettlement countries and international organisations and explore opportunities to increase bilateral and multilateral co-operation to stop people smuggling, he said.

Mr Houston described the first mission as a success, saying there was ”an incredible openness and frankness from the interlocutors from all three countries”.

In Sri Lanka, he said he was given assurances that those who had been returned, who were not involved in people smuggling, had not been punished.

In Pakistan, he said authorities blamed the terrorist organisation Lashkar-e-Jhangvi for recent attacks on the Hazara population. ”I got assurances that the military would do their utmost to protect the community there,” he said.

Discussion in Thailand focused on the needs of Rohingyan people who had fled violence in Myanmar. ”If you look at the current Rohingyan problem, it’s something that affects the whole region and needs a regional solution,” Mr Houston said.

Michael Gordon, Political editor, The Age, March 19, 2013

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