Patricia Karvelas, ABC Radio National

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Sudan civil war, Evacuating Australians from Sudan, Foreign Aid and JobSeeker Payment rate.

Patricia Karvelas: The shaky ceasefire in Sudan has been extended for another 72 hours, a move which it's hoped will allow more foreign nationals to escape the fighting. But for the 45 million plus Sudanese citizens caught up in clashes between rival military factions, the options are vastly limited. Some 70 Australians have left Sudan, but more remain. Tim Watts is the Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs. He's been meeting members of the Australian Sudanese community and he's our guest this morning. Tim Watts, welcome.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Good to be with you, PK.

Patricia Karvelas: How many Australians are believed to still be in Sudan and does the government have a plan for getting them out?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, we've got currently 134 Australians registered with DFAT in Sudan and at least 88 Australians and their family members have safely departed the conflict in Sudan so far. So, what we've been doing since this civil war broke out is facilitating the departure of Australian citizens and their families in Sudan by arranging places on flights and on-road convoys departing Khartoum. So, our teams have been working 24 hours a day. They're in direct and regular contact with all Australians in Sudan who've registered with us and letting them know about flights and road departure options in real-time. But as you say, the situation is dangerous, it remains volatile. So, this window, this 72-hour extension of the ceasefire, is really important. We're encouraging any Australian still in Sudan, take this opportunity. Now is the time to leave, if you can, safely do so.

Patricia Karvelas: So, is that advice based on, if not now, then things are going to be more difficult for the Australian Government to be able to help you?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: It's a dangerous and volatile situation over there, PK. This ceasefire is a good opportunity to try to leave. There are plenty of seats available on flights operated by partner countries at the Wadi Seidna Airfield. If you can safely get there, go there, now. Now is a good time to leave. If you can safely get to that airfield.

Patricia Karvelas: How can they escape? You just said getting to that airfield, but just talk about the logistics really realistically. You say, "do it," but is it really going to be easy for them?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, we have been successfully getting Australians out of Sudan. As I said, 88 Australians have left today. We expect a number more to be leaving today. But the situation on the ground is volatile and dangerous. So, on the ground, we're dealing with limited movement in Khartoum. Communications are difficult. There are fuel, other supply shortages, prices are obviously going through the roof.

It's a really difficult time and that's why the Australian Government, our diplomats, have been calling on all parties to prevent further needless bloodshed and ensure that anyone who's able to, who wants to leave, is able to depart safely. So, we've been working with the Sudanese Government in Khartoum, we've been talking to the Sudanese Ambassador in Canberra and with international partners, the African Union, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. We've been advocating for the extension of this ceasefire, for humanitarian access corridors and for returns and negotiations. The ceasefire is good news, but I really encourage any Australians in Sudan to take advantage of it while it's holding.

Patricia Karvelas: Loans are available to pay for travel. How can people apply for those and how quickly can they get access to that money?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: So, the best way for Australians to talk to DFAT in this emergency is through the Emergency Consular Assistance Hotline. So, we have a Consular Emergency Centre that's open 24 hours. If you're in Australia, you can call out on 1300 555 135, or if you're overseas, 61 2 6261 3305. We've staged up a very significant consular support process for this. We've deployed consular officers to Djibouti, Jeddah, Cyprus and Cairo, those third country sites where people are trying to exit through. So, people who do cross the border out of Sudan will have support with their onward travel arrangements and, where necessary, where possible, providing emergency loans where needed.

Patricia Karvelas: You've been meeting members of the Sudanese community. What are they telling you and what are they asking for?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Look, clearly there is a lot of anxiety. I mean, this situation is dangerous and volatile and you can only imagine how scary it is to have family members in those situations. And I've spoken to many Australians who have partners, who have close family members, who have children in this situation. It's really scary. They want advice, they want ways out of the country.

As I say, there are plenty of seats on flights out of the country, but everyone's individual circumstances depend on where they are in the country. This is a suburb-by-suburb issue in Khartoum as to whether you can safely get to an airport. So, the important thing is that people are registering with DFAT for the online crisis registration portal, so that we have the specific details of people's individual circumstances and we're able to provide the latest information, the best advice on flight and road departure options as soon as possible.

Patricia Karvelas: What broader support is Australia prepared to offer if this conflict drags on? Will you support Sudanese Australians, for instance, to bring family members here?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, our immediate priority, obviously, is on ensuring the safety of Australian citizens in Sudan. We're also conscious, though, that Australia is a diverse country, we're connected with the world and there are many Sudanese citizens who are living in Australia at the moment staying long term for family or work visas, they might be here on holidays.

Understandably, many of these Sudanese people, often family members of Sudanese Australians, will want to delay their return to Sudan. There's lots of different visas out there. But if you're Sudanese and you're listening to this call and you're on a visa that requires you to leave the country and you want to extend it, I want to reassure you, we know that's not a very practical option right now. So, people in this situation can apply to have that requirement waived and visa holders should check the VEVO online portal for information about how to extend that and to apply for a waiver.

Patricia Karvelas: Do you know how many people are in that category?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, there are about 16,000 Australians of Sudanese heritage living in the country at the moment. There'll be a large number of visa holders as well. But these are things that we are working through in the wake of the crisis response, trying to get people out of the immediate danger incident.

Patricia Karvelas: The big question though is, is Australia prepared to accept an increase in our refugee intake in the same way we did in Syria and Ukraine?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, this is obviously going to be a very significant crisis in Africa, as we have seen very significant crises in recent years in Ukraine, in Myanmar, in the Middle East. So, we'll work through those issues. And Afghanistan of course, where we are bringing many refugees.

Patricia Karvelas: Look, I know there's not an announcement and you can't announce something, but level with us here. This is a huge crisis as you've identified it, is this an inevitability that we are going to have to bring in more refugees from this war-torn country?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: PK, what I'd say to you is that the global refugee crisis has probably never been worse. We are seeing that around the world at the moment. And look, I've been to Africa multiple times in the last twelve months in my position as Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs. I was at the African Union summit, in Addis Ababa; I was down in Nairobi visiting the ICRC there and there's a very dire situation in the Horn of Africa.  And if this civil war continues we're likely to see a very dire situation at the heart of the continent as well. So, the scale of this issue - nobody's under any illusions as to it, but it's happening in a global context of very significant people displacement.

Patricia Karvelas: And is it your view that the government should increase foreign aid spending in the budget?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, we've already provided targeted support to the Horn of Africa for the hunger crisis there, to the International Commission for the Red Cross and that centre in Nairobi is going to be the centre that's called on to provide support for people fleeing this crisis in Sudan. We are expecting very large numbers of people to be fleeing north, or into South Sudan, and significant people fleeing into Chad.  And those people will require support, will require the international community to work together to deal with this.
As I said, we've already provided support into the Horn of Africa to support the International Red Cross there and we'll consider further requests for support when they come.

Patricia Karvelas: Just finally, on another issue that's very much dominating at the moment, a number of your colleagues now have come out in favour of a substantial increase in the JobSeeker rate. Do you think that it needs to be increased?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: I expect that the budget will include targeted packages for vulnerable people in our society for those most in need, clearly it's very difficult to live on the JobSeeker rate at the moment, but I'm confident that Jim Chalmers and those pulling together the budget are cognisant of this. In the context of broader budget pressures, it's something that I know that the whole of government is taking really seriously.

Patricia Karvelas: I haven't seen a breakout like this in the time you've been in government. It's up to eleven MPs now saying, raise the rate of the unemployment benefit. It's significant, isn't it?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, PK, after ten years of very serious neglect and mismanagement in this country, we have a very long to-do list in government. There are enormous pressures on the budget, at the neglect of the previous government, and we're also dealing with the situation of a trillion dollars of Liberal debt that we've inherited in a context of significant economic pressures, including very significant inflationary pressures. So, there are a lot of stresses on this budget process, but I have full confidence in the team pulling it together.

Patricia Karvelas: Thanks for your time this morning.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Thank you, PK.

Patricia Karvelas: The Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tim Watts.

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