An asylum seeker boat which made its way into Australian waters this week continues to intrigue people... mostly because the government refuses to acknowledge it even exists.
Refugee advocates say there's between 25-30 Vietnamese Catholic asylum seekers on board and it's been towed away from Dampier by the Australian Navy.
The immigration minister Peter Dutton has refused to explain where the boat is being taken and instead said the government would not comment about "on water matters".
So in the interests of finding out about this group of people (who may be fleeing persecution), we decided to ask Mr Dutton about it over and over again at a pre-arranged government photo opportunity.
The day started with being signed in by an Australian Border Force agent. He had a shiny badge and watched over the process.
When Guardian journalist Paul Farrell told him who he worked for, Mr Border Force joked, "who should I search first?"
Ha ha ha ha... urgh. Good start Mr Border Force.
Then we were shown into a massive hanger for the re-launch of "Border Watch" (the customs officers who search for dodgy drugs and guns on incoming ships and flights). There were lots of high-powered guns.
Also some absolutely ridiculous and insane looking knives and musical instruments.
Then there was this fan which must have been the biggest fan in the southern hemisphere*.
Minister Dutton arrived and more than 50 departmental bureaucrats and Border Force agents closed in around the media.
The atmosphere was electric.
HEAPS cute though.
Dutton then went to comfort Taipan and he got a lick in the face. For a border control regime hellbent on dogicide, it was a tense moment for everyone.
At least the Border Force put on an impressive spread. Quartered muffins, caramel slice and four types of sangas (three contained rocket tho).
Peter Dutton stepped up to speak to media and it was *****showtime*****
As the questions were thrown over to the media... we asked our first question to Dutton:
BuzzFeed News: "Can we ask you about the boatload of asylum seekers that are currently off the coast of Dampier in WA, does it exist? And if you're going to say "on water matters" as the reason why you won't, why don't you think the Australian public deserve an explanation of what's going on, off the coast?"
Dutton: "Just a bit of context here. We know that 50,000 people arrived when Labor was in government, 1,200 people tragically lost their lives at sea. We've been able to stop the boats since we've been in government..." (continues to waffle for several more minutes).
Dammit. Dutton was good. We tried a different tactic and interrupted his answer:
BuzzFeed: "If there is a boat do you not concede that 'stop the boats' is not a line you could use, as a successfully policy proposition?"
Dutton: "So the point that I'm making is that we make comment in relation to operational matters when it's appropriate to do so. I'm not going to put lives of our personnel at risk. I'm not going to put the lives of people who try to come to Australia by boat at risk..."
Maybe we'd be third time lucky:
BuzzFeed: "What's going to happen with those Vietnamese asylum seekers though? Are they going to be taken to Nauru? Or are they going to be sent back to Vietnam? Or Indonesia? Where are they going to be sent to?"
Dutton: "...The other point that I would make is that we settle 13,500 refugees a year through the humanitarian program which makes us one of the most generous countries in the world and I think people need to recognize that and be reminded by it. Because we welcome people who come here the right way but we don't want to see people smugglers back in business. Now we turn back boats where it's safe to do so. We have good bilateral relations with countries including Vietnam and elsewhere, where if it's safe to do so, we've met our international obligations and we don't owe people protection, those people will go back to their country of origin. People who seek an economc outcome are not true refugees and just because someone is on a boat doesn't mean someone is a refugee. People understandably would seek a better life for their kids if they're on a low income in a country somewhere within our region, but we settle people through the right way and we settle them in record numbers. That number of 13,750 rose to 18,750 within a couple of years."
BuzzFeed: "How can the government with a straight face say that you've stopped the boats when there are actually boats arriving, you just won't talk about them?"
Dutton: "Well if there are other questions I'm willing to come back to you…"
BuzzFeed: "Why won't you answer that question though?"
Dutton: "I'm happy to come back to that but there are others who might have questions."
BuzzFeed: "It doesn't seem like there are any other questions."
Dutton: "Are there any other questions?"
There were other questions, to be fair. Dutton was clearly pissed off. After several more questions... we tried again:
BuzzFeed: "Do you think that Australian taxpayers deserve an explanation about the Vietnamese asylum seekers that are off the coast of WA?"
Dutton: "If there are any other questions, I'll take those and I'm happy to come back to you."
Dutton was leaning on this tactic of giving other reporters a chance. Again, a few other questions were asked. But we went back there:
BuzzFeed: "What's going to happen to the Vietnamese asylum seekers that are currently off the coast of WA?"
Dutton: "Well I don't have any comment to make when it comes to operational matters. But the long standing obligation of the Australian government, is that if we owe protection to somebody we'll meet our international obligations in affording that person protection. If people are here because they're seeking a better life then they're not true refugees. They're economic refugees, then they won't be coming to our country. I've been very clear that screening takes place, if people need to be afforded protection, they'll be afforded that protection. If it is deemed they are not to be afforded that protection then we will make arrangements to return them back to their country of origin. That is the way that the law has operated for a long period of time and nothing changes today or into the future."
Maybe by talking about "economic refugees" he was actually speaking about those on board the boat. Worth having another ask:
BuzzFeed: "Are they economic refugees, the Vietnamese asylum seekers?
Dutton: "I don't have any comment to make in relation to that."
That was it. Press conference over. After repeated questions we were no clearer about the existence of the asylum seeker boat or where it was being towed by the Australian navy.
Trudging out of the massive warehouse we looked up and something caught our eye. It was this framed picture of South Park character Cartman posing as "employee of the month". It all made sense now.
Mark Di Stefano is a political editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.
Contact Mark Di Stefano at email@example.com.
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