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Friday 29 April 2016 | Published in Regional


AUSTRALIA – The fate of 850 asylum seekers on Manus Island hangs in the balance as Australia’s Immigration Minister Peter Dutton struggles to explain why the government was ill-prepared for the detention centre’s closure.

In a testy exchange with presenter Karl Stefanovic of Channel Nine’s Today show, Dutton insisted Tuesday’s ruling by Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court and the country’s subsequent decision to close the facility “hasn’t taken us by surprise”.

But he was unable to explain why the government had no immediate solution for the men left in limbo on the island – more than half of whom have been assessed as refugees.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull conceded on Wednesday the government did not have “a definitive road map” on what to do, just hours before PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill announced the Manus Island facility would close and Australia would have to make “alternative arrangements” for the detainees.

But Dutton told Today on Thursday: “We’ve been anticipating the Supreme Court decision in PNG and we’ve been planning for this since late last year.”

That prompted Stefanovic to ask the minister why the government seemed to have been blind-sided by the ruling.

“It doesn’t say much about your planning. You say you’ve known for months this ruling was coming, and yesterday Mr Turnbull said we have no road map. How long does it take the prime minister to come up with a road map?” Dutton suggested refugees who were owed protection could be resettled in PNG or elsewhere in the region, while those whose applications had been rejected would be sent back to their country of origin. But those plans were subject to ongoing negotiations.

“They obviously want to come to Australia but we’ve been clear that they won’t,” he said. “We are negotiating with third countries, we’ll continue our discussions with PNG.”

Again, Stefanovic fired up. “You can’t answer the question of what happens. You’ve been told that this facility’s closing and you can’t answer the question of what happens to those 850 asylum seekers.”

Speaking in Tasmania on Thursday, the Prime Minister reiterated that the Manus detainees will not be resettled in Australia and said a “strong defence against the people smugglers” needed to be maintained.

“We are seeking to ensure that the people detained at Manus can either settle in PNG as they have the opportunity to do, or in third countries, but they will not come to Australia.”

But he is adamant allowing them to be resettled in Australia would encourage people smugglers and drownings at sea.

“We must have secure borders and we do and we will, and they will remain so, as long as I am the prime minister of this country,” Turnbull said.

Other possible options include taking the detainees to Christmas Island, the remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, or sending them to the detention centre in Nauru.

Dutton told Sky News the Nauruan facility had capacity for more people, but discussions with PNG would take precedence.

Australian Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs said the government’s hardline approach was no longer “an adequate answer”, saying the conditions of offshore processing were “dangerous” and “unsustainable”.

“It may very well be that it takes a unanimous judgment in the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court to finally shift public opinion and maybe also political views,” she told ABC Radio National.

“Australia can’t force Papua New Guinea to hold people that were originally Australia’s responsibility. But equally it’s very difficult for Papua New Guinea to take these asylum seekers back.”

Triggs said the imminent election campaign meant it was “almost impossible” that either side of politics would change their politically successful policies on offshore detention.

“The timing is really so bad,” she said. “It really leaves the matter in limbo.” - PNC