The Albanese government has launched a concerted effort to nip in the bud a threatened resumption of the people smuggling trade, with a visit by Home Affairs Minister Clare O'Neil to Sri Lanka and a $50 million aid package for that economically-beleaguered country.
Several boats have set out from Sri Lanka in recent weeks. Mostly, the boats are being intercepted by the Sri Lankan authorities. Any making it into Australian waters have the passengers returned.
The Australian government is not currently providing details of boat activity.
The people smugglers started to look to a resumption of their trade just before the election, when a change of government looked likely. The Morrison government had text messages sent out on election day about the interception of a boat, hoping to sway some voters.
O’Neil is meeting Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Foreign Minister, G. L. Peiris.
Early last week O'Neil and Peiris spoke by phone. The visit has been planned for a few days and coincides with the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
A statement from O’Neil said her Sri Lankan discussions would cover “how Australia can deepen cooperation and assist Sri Lanka as the country faces very difficult economic times, as well as strengthening engagement on transnational crime, including people smuggling”.
The Australian aid is directed to food and health needs. Announcing the package, Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the country faced “its worst economic crisis in 70 years, leading to shortages of food, medicine and fuel”.
She said Australia would contribute an immediate $22 million to the World Food Programme for emergency food assistance to help three million people in Sri Lanka meet their daily needs.
The government will also provide $23 million in development assistance to Sri Lanka in 2022-23. “This will support health services, and economic recovery, with a strong emphasis on protecting those at risk, especially women and girls,” Wong said.
The money is in addition to the $5 million Australia recently provided to United Nations agencies for Sri Lanka.
“Australia has a close and long-standing relationship with Sri Lanka. Not only do we want to help the people of Sri Lanka in its time of need, there are also deeper consequences for the region,” Wong said.
Asked what message the government hoped to send to people smugglers and the Sri Lankan government during O'Neil’s visit, Prime Minister Albanese said: “That people who arrive by boat will not be settled here.
"People smugglers seek to trade in misery. They seek to mislead, [they are] often run by criminal syndicates.
"We will be strong when it comes to our borders. […] We will look after our international obligations to do the right thing. But the right thing is not having a free-for-all whereby people who turn up will be settled.
"We understand that there are issues in Sri Lanka and that the wrong messages are being given by people smugglers. Our message will be very clear,” Albanese said.
One of the first acts of the Albanese government was to allow the Sri Lankan “Biloela” family to return to the Queensland town. Albanese was subsequently pictured with the family, a photo some fear could be used by people smugglers as part of their advertising pitch.