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Thursday 28 April 2016 | Published in Regional


AUSTRALIA – The future of 850 men being held in the Manus Island detention centre remains in limbo, as senior Australian ministers provide conflicting advice on whether the detainees have any hope of being resettled in Australia.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has been in direct talks with Papua New Guinea’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Immigration Rimbink Pato after the country’s Supreme Court ruled detention of asylum seekers was illegal.

The central pillar of the Australian government’s asylum seeker policy has been to deter people from trying to reach Australia by boat by vowing to send them to another country and prevent them resettling in Australia.

Dutton has stressed that policy remains firmly in place.

“The option of coming to Australia is not open and will not open in the future,” he told the ABC.

Treasurer and former immigration minister Scott Morrison echoed the same view saying “no one on Manus Island is coming to Australia. Full stop”.

But Defence Minister Marise Payne did not repeat the same blanket denial in an interview on Channel 7, suggesting each detainee would have their case considered separately.

“That would be a matter for the minister and the government and I think that would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis,” she said.

In the same interview Senator Payne also said the existing government policy, which does not endorse resettlement in Australia, had not changed.

“We have been very clear about our process and our approach to this since before the 2013 election. Nothing has changed in that regard,” she said.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said a Labor government would keep regional processing in place, but he called on Dutton to travel to PNG for direct negotiations on the outcome of the Supreme Court decision.

“Peter Dutton needs to get on a plane – he doesn’t need to brief Malcolm Turnbull, he needs to get on a plane to talk to the Government of Papua New Guinea,” Shorten said.

“He needs to sort the issue out. They’ve had three years of not dealing with this issue.”

Dutton maintains Australia does not have to bow to the court rulings of its regional neighbour and the detention centre is within the “sovereign responsibility” of the PNG Government.

“In terms of the regional processing centre in Manus, it’s part of PNG territory obviously and the decision of the Supreme Court is one that binds the PNG government not the Australian government.”

He said the Australian government would work with the PNG government to return detainees to their country of origin or a third country but declined to name the additional countries where the men could be sent.

“There’s obviously negotiations underway with a number of countries,” he said.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the Australian government would be providing support to Papua New Guinea.

“The responsibility is the PNG government’s but naturally we will work with them, support them,” he said.

PNG lawyer Ben Lomai, who is running a similar case to the one decided on Tuesday, said he thought the men might be sent to Nauru.

Lomai said in light of the ruling he would make an application to the PNG Supreme Court to have the men transferred to Australia.

He said the asylum seekers were delighted at the Supreme Court’s decision but they still did not know where they would end up.

“There was a lot of jubilation in the camp but at the same time there is some mixed feelings because they are more interested to know where are they going to go from there now they have their freedom,” Lomai said.

Another PNG lawyer, Loani Henao, has called on both governments to accept the unanimous ruling, which is not subject to appeal.

“The governments of Papua New Guinea in particular and that of Australia must take immediate steps not tomorrow or next year or in six months’ time to remove the unconstitutionally set up detention centre on Manus Island,” he said.