Australia rapped over ‘grave lapse’ in border security

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 May, 2013, 5:07pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 May, 2013, 5:25pm

Australia’s border security came under fire on Tuesday after reports an Egyptian asylum-seeker wanted by Interpol was held in minimum security and a Sri Lankan accused of murder was released into the community.

The cases, outlined in parliament by immigration officials, were condemned as a grave lapse of policy by the conservative opposition.

The Egyptian man who was wanted on a top-level red notice by Interpol spent almost a year in a low-security facility in rural South Australia before being moved to the secure Villawood centre in Sydney.

Immigration department secretary Martin Bowles denied the man had been moved in response to media reports that he was a suspected extremist.

“I can assure you we knew what was going on and we knew where the person was,” Bowles told a Senate committee.

“Unfortunately when sensitive information like this is put into the public domain it compromises our ability to do our job properly,” he added.

Bowles also confirmed that a Sri Lankan man accused of murdering his girlfriend before seeking asylum in Australia had been released into the community for seven months on a temporary visa while his case was reviewed.

He was “re-detained” and his visa cancelled in April, Bowles said.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott grilled Prime Minister Julia Gillard on the issue in parliament, asking her to assure voters “that the community is as safe today as it was under the former government”.

The prime minister refused to comment on the specific cases, accusing Abbott of “disgraceful” fear-mongering.

“What we are seeing from the opposition here is an ugly campaign to try and raise fear in the Australian community, coming here with false claims about national security,” Gillard said.

Abbott’s immigration spokesman Michael Keenan said the Egyptian man was “either an accused or a convicted terrorist” and had been held behind “what is essentially a [swimming] pool fence”.

“The idea he would have spent almost a year within such a low-security environment, from which he could easily have escaped, is really quite frankly beyond belief and represents a very serious breach of our national security,” he said.

The politically sensitive issues of border security and Australia’s record influx of asylum-seeker boats are likely to loom large in the campaign for September 14’s national elections.

The conservatives - widely tipped to beat Gillard’s unpopular Labor government - have pledged to crack down on boatpeople with punitive policies including tow-backs of boats to international waters.

Bowles said the “very high” number of asylum-seeker boat arrivals was likely to top 25,000 in the year to June 30, with numbers currently at 22,265.

That figure is almost five times estimates of 5,400 for the period given a year ago and double the revised forecast of 12,160 offered in October.