First asylum seekers arrive on Manus Island

First asylum seekers arrive on Manus Island

First asylum seekers arrive on Manus Island

Updated 21 November 2012, 16:20 AEST

The Australian Government has started transferring asylum seekers to PNG, but concedes there have been too many boat arrivals in the past few months to process all refugee claims offshore.

The Australian Government has begun transferring asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea - including women and children - but concedes there have been too many boat arrivals in the past few months to process all refugee claims offshore.

As a result, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen says his department will begin releasing asylum seekers into the community on bridging visas, even if they arrived after the Government reintroduced offshore processing and the so called 'no advantage' test.

The Government will also expand its onshore detention network, by reopening the Pontville centre in southern Tasmania.

Late last night, a group of 19 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka and Iran were flown from Christmas Island to the Manus Island detention centre in PNG.

It was made up of seven family groups, including women and four children.

"At this stage, family groups are best accommodated on Manus Island, as opposed to Nauru," Mr Bowen told reporters in Sydney.

"People smugglers have been peddling the lie that if you come to Australia by boat as a member of a family, you wouldn't be processed in another country, you'd be processed in Australia.

"Obviously, that is not the case (and) today's transfer and the transfers that will follow will underline that point."

The international organisation, Save The Children, has been asked to help out at the centre to make sure younger asylum seekers are treated appropriately.

The centre will be operated by the same company that bungled security arrangements for the London Olympics, G4S, with welfare services provided by the Salvation Army.

Too many arrivals

Speaking at the same time as Mr Bowen's media conference, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott continued the Coalition's attack on Labor's border protection policies.

"The Government today is boasting that some 18 people have been sent to Manus Island," Mr Abbott told reporters in Perth.

"What about the 30,000-plus illegal boat arrivals who have come to this great big island since this Government changed the policy that's working.

"It's just not good enough that this Government thinks it's an achievement to send just 18 people to Manus, when you've got 2,000 people coming every month."

More than 7,500 asylum seekers have arrived by boat since mid-August when the Government announced it would reopen the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.

That is despite warnings from the Government that anyone who arrived after that date risked being sent to one of the offshore centres to have their refugee claims processed.

Mr Bowen has today conceded there have been too many arrivals since August to send all asylum seekers to either Manus Island or Nauru, and some people will have to be released into the community.

"Transfers to Nauru and Manus Island will continue, however in the coming weeks and months my department will begin releasing some people who arrived by boat on or after August 13 into the community on bridging visas," he said in a statement.

"Consistent with no advantage, people from this cohort going onto bridging visas will have no work rights and will receive only basic accommodation assistance and limited financial support."

Mr Bowen says the Government will reopen the Pontville detention centre in Tasmania and also expand the capacity at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation by about 300 places.

"Recent high arrival rates have placed pressure on our detention network, and it's sensible in managing this and also in terms of prudent contingency planning, that we take some steps to expand the capacity of our onshore detention network," he said.

Returned home

The Government has also revealed that yesterday an Afghan man was involuntarily returned home after his claims for refugee status were rejected.

It is the first time someone has been sent back to Afghanistan under an agreement signed between that country's government, Australia and the United Nations refugee agency last year.

Separately to that, a group of 100 Sri Lankans are being involuntarily flown back to Colombo on an Air Force plane - the ninth such removal this month.

"We'll continue these returns for as long as it takes for people who might be tempted by the wiles of people smugglers in Sri Lanka to undertake economic migration to realise that that path of migration to Australia is closed," Mr Bowen said.

"Our humanitarian program is for people who are at risk of persecution, not for people seeking to undertake economic migration."

The Government has faced stinging criticism from Amnesty International in relation to the living conditions within the detention centre on Nauru, with the group describing them as "completely unacceptable" and expressing concern about the mental health of detainees.

We'll continue these returns for as long as it takes for people who might be tempted by the wiles of people smugglers in Sri Lanka to undertake economic migration to realise that that path of migration to Australia is closed.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen

Mr Bowen says he is not surprised that Amnesty International has spoken out against offshore processing, but he has defended the way the facility is being run.

"We provide all the necessary care and support to people in a difficult situation," he said.

"But as I've said to you, hundreds (or) thousands of people have died by boat getting to Australia.

"There is a moral obligation to do something about that - that is what we're doing."

One of the issues that particularly concerns Amnesty International is the indeterminate timeframe being imposed on asylum seekers held on the island.

Mr Bowen today revealed that initial interviews with asylum seekers would begin next week, with full assessment of refugee claims beginning next year.

"Of course, the issuing of protection visas will not be considered for a substantial amount of time."

"The no-advantage test will mean that people will wait for a very substantial period - could it be five years? Yes it could."

The Government has now signed a contract with Brisbane-based construction firm Canstruct to begin building the first phase of the permanent detention centre on Nauru which will house 900 asylum seekers.

"A large number of the construction staff are expected to be locally-engaged Nauruans," Mr Bowen said.