Matthew Doran, ABC News
Matthew Doran: Let's turn our attention overseas now. And there are still grave fears for Australians stuck in Sudan, even as a ceasefire between the nation's army and a paramilitary group is extended. Australia doesn't have a diplomatic presence in the country and has been directing its citizens to take advantage of flights operated by other countries to flee. The Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs is Tim Watts.
Tim Watts, welcome to Afternoon Briefing. What can you tell us about the current situation in Sudan, the number of Australians still believed to be in the country?
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, the civil conflict in Sudan is a dangerous and volatile situation, but I'm pleased to say that 102 Australians have safely left the country since the beginning of this conflict. We're currently tracking 142 Australians who are still in country who have registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs. And I can assure all of your listeners that the Department of Foreign Affairs is working 24 hours a day to secure seats on planes, seats on car convoys exiting Sudan. We've forward deployed consular officials to third countries where these people are evacuating to in Cyprus, Djibouti, Jeddah and Cairo to ensure that when they get off the plane, when they get off the boat in those third countries, there's a DFAT official there to help with accommodation and their onwards travel. We're doing everything possible to ensure that Australians who have been stuck in this very difficult, very challenging, very scary situation have a pathway home to Australia.
Matthew Doran: So, 102 have been able to get out of the country, another 148 still believed to be in Sudan. That's significantly higher figures than what was thought just a couple of days ago. I think the original figure was 158 all up before those evacuations started to happen, is that correct?
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Yes, it's 142 that we're currently tracking. So, we've set up a 24-hour consular emergency centre and we've been encouraging all Australians in Sudan to register their presence in Sudan with us. And so that's why that number has been increasing over the past few days as more people have registered their details and more people have registered their interest in leaving the country on those facilitated flights that we've secured seats on with partner countries.
Matthew Doran: Clearly DFAT officials are working around the clock to try to aid Australians still in the country. But is that situation made more difficult by the fact that we don't actually have a diplomatic presence in Sudan, even in non-conflict times?
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: You're right to say that we don't have an embassy in Sudan and that limits some of the things that we can do on the ground relative to other countries. But I can assure everyone that we have arrangements in place for these circumstances. So, just as in the Pacific, where we have an extensive diplomatic presence, we have arrangements with other countries to help them out where they might not have a diplomatic presence in the Pacific when a crisis hits. We have arrangements in place with partner countries in Sudan. So, we've been working on those existing consular arrangements to secure seats on flights leaving Sudan with partner countries. And I particularly want to thank the United Kingdom at this point for the seats that they've made available. But I can assure everyone that just because you're leaving Sudan on a flight that doesn't have an Australian flag on the side of it, doesn't mean you're not following a pathway that's been secured for you by Australian diplomats who have been working extraordinarily hard in this crisis. I want to thank Australian consular officials and diplomats for the work that they've been doing to help Australians get back to Australia safely.
Matthew Doran: There has been some criticism, particularly from Australia's Sudanese community, that not enough support has been provided that people in the country have been asked to make a pretty perilous journey through conflict zones, to try to get to airfields just outside of Khartoum, to make it to Port Sedan, to try to get on ferries. They're effectively being askd to make their own way there and that is a very dangerous set of circumstances. How would you respond to that sort of criticism?
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Look, it's a very scary, anxious period of time for the Australian Sudanese community. I've met with them in Australia and discussed what they're going through with them, and I've assured them that if they can register with the 24-hour Consular Emergency Centre, that we will be in contact with people on the ground, letting them know about pathways out of the country. As you were saying, if people can safely get to the Wadi Seidna Airfield just north of Khartoum, there are seats available for Australians on flights leaving that airfield, or if you can participate in the available road convoys down to the Port of Sedan. There are ships leaving for Jeddah and once you leave from Khartoum or from Jeddah, you'll be met by Australian Consular officials who will be able to provide support on accommodation, support on onwards travel. So, we are doing everything possible cognisant of the fact that we don't have people on the ground in an embassy in Sudan, but we do have strong partnerships with countries that do have people on the ground and we're doing everything possible to ensure that Australians can safely exit this very terrible situation.
Matthew Doran: Given that the ceasefire has been extended, does that sort of widen the window of opportunity here for people to get out? I don't really want to say safely, because it is a very dangerous set of circumstances, but it's a wider opportunity, isn't it?
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, we've been pursuing every diplomatic channel to secure this ceasefire, to support diplomatic efforts to secure this ceasefire. We've been talking with the government in Khartoum, we've been talking to the embassy in Australia, we've been talking to the African Union, the Organisation of Islamic Corporation. We've been having a full court press to secure this ceasefire and humanitarian passages and, as you say, this window of opportunity, this extended ceasefire for the next 72 hours is critical. I'd say to any Australian who's currently in Sudan, if you can safely get either to the airfield or to the Port of Sudan, this 72-hour window is an important one to take advantage of. We cannot guarantee that there will be flights leaving Sudan after the conclusion of this ceasefire on April 30.
Matthew Doran: Given our diplomatic presence, or lack of diplomatic presence in that part of Africa, you've mentioned there the sort of lobbying that the Australian Government's been doing. But do we really have much sway in this fight?
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, like many international issues, joint action from countries, from like-minded countries, working with other countries that might have more influence in an area, is what gets results here. So, the ceasefire that we've seen over the last period of time and going forward over the next 72 hours is a result of a concerted diplomatic effort from multiple countries, including Australia, trying to ensure that the people who are stuck in the middle of this conflict through no fault of their own don't pay the price for this conflict between the two parties. So, we're doing everything within our power to ensure that there is a ceasefire and that there are channels for humanitarian support into Sudan.
Matthew Doran: Minister, your focus is clearly on matters overseas. But there is also a big story here in Australia today. With the agreement out of National Cabinet to cap the rate at which the National Disability Insurance Scheme is growing year on year, there have been a lot of concerns that the budget constraints are getting incredibly tight and that this is a very costly, if not very worthy, scheme to support vulnerable Australians. What guarantee can you give to NDIS recipients that they're not going to start seeing their funding paired back or they're going to still be able to access that sort of support into the future with those caps put in place?
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, as you say, Matt, my attention has been focused today on ensuring that Australians are safely able to exit that civil conflict in Sudan. But I can say that to all of my constituents on the NDIS, my guarantee to them about their support on the NDIS is Bill Shorten, the Minister here. There is no greater champion of the NDIS in Australia than Bill Shorten. He's my neighbouring MP and I've seen his commitment to this scheme and to the people that it supports first hand for many, many years. I have full confidence in his ability to deliver for Australians on the NDIS. It's a really important program. It transforms lives. It's a program that the previous Labor Government established. So, I have full confidence that the current government, the current Minister, will deliver for Australians relying on the NDIS.
Matthew Doran: Tim Watts, thank you.
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Thank you Matt.
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