PNG confirms Australian asylum approach | Asia Pacific

PNG confirms Australian asylum approach

PNG confirms Australian asylum approach

Updated 6 January 2012, 12:00 AEDT

Papua New Guinea has confirmed the Australia Government has asked it to consider opening an asylum seeker processing centre in exchange for aid.

PNG's Foreign Minister Don Polye says a centre could be placed anywhere but reopening the mothballed Manus Island facility would be an ideal situation. Mr Polye says the PNG cabinet is considering the request but is yet to make a decision. Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard is tight lipped on the proposal, and yet to reveal the nature of any aid being offered.

Presenter: Joanna McCarthy

Don Polye, PNG Foreign Minister; Julia Gillard, Australian Prime Minister; Scott Morrison, Australian Opposition immigration spokesman; Tony Abbott, Australian Opposition Leader; Paul Power, chief executive, Refugee Council of Australia

MCCARTHY: The so-called Pacific solution was introduced under the former coalition government of John Howard. Its origins date back to 2001, when the Howard government refused permission for Norwegian freighter MV Tampa - carrying 438 Afghan asylum seekers - to enter Australian waters. In the glare of a looming election campaign, the government changed the legal regime for dealing with asylum seekers who arrived by boat. Those who arrived at sea were intercepted and returned to Indonesia, or sent to detention centres on Ashmore and Christmas Islands, or on Nauru or PNG's Manus Island. In 2007, the newly elected Rudd Labor government stood by its election promise to close down the centres in the Pacific. But now it seems the PNG option is back on the government's agenda although so far Prime Minister Julia Gillard is staying tight lipped.

GILLARD: As Prime Minister whenI first talked about the very complex problem of people smuggling I said I was committed to a regional solution and we have been pursuing discussions in our region and with the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees on a regional solution. When I've got something to announce arising from those discussions, then I'll announce it.

MCCARTHY: Australia's Opposition immigration spokesman is Scott Morrison.

MORRISON: It's not clear at this stage as to what is actually being proposed in PNG but it is a clear signal I think that they've worked out that all of their condemnation of the government's, of the Howard government's 'Pacific Solution' over the years was wrong. I mean, the Prime Minister said only a year ago, less than a year ago, that she thought putting asylum seekers on Pacific islands was costly, unsustainable and wrong as a matter of policy. Now, clearly she's had a humiliating backdown on that, and that her East Timor never-never solution is exactly that.

MCCARTHY: And Opposition leader Tony Abbott says re-opening Manus Island won't be enough.

ABBOTT: On its own it certainly isn't going to stop the boats and it certainly isn't going to stop the protests inside detention centres. The Prime Minister should immediately pick up the phone to the president of Nauru. Kevin Rudd had the common sense to talk to Michael Somare. Julia Gillard should now pick up the phone to the president of Nauru. The Nauru centre is about three times the size as the Manus one. If it's good to have the Manus centre re-operational, it's even better to have the Nauru centre operational. She should swallow her pride and pick up the phone to the president of Nauru today.

MCCARTHY: The government's ruled out Nauru because, unlike PNG, it's not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. But Julia Gillard has been under mounting pressure to do something about Australia's overcrowded detention centres, after a wave of violent protests on Christmas Island, Curtin and Villawood. The Opposition says more than 11,000 people have now arrived in 220 boats since Labor abandoned the Howard government's policies. And opinion polls show almost two-thirds of Australians support a tougher approach. The government could see the revival of the PNG option as a way of getting some much needed breathing space on a heated political issue. But Paul Power from the Refugee Council of Australia says it will be an appalling backflip.

POWER: The government has been doing some quite effective work in recent months on supporting the development of a regional cooperation framework on refugee protection but the establishment of an Australian detention centre in Papua New Guinea will quite seriously undermine those efforts. I'm sure that if the Government proceeds with this that they will try to present it as part of a regional response with international partners involved but within Australia and outside of Australia this would be universally viewed as an Australian detention arrangement in another country and really an example of how a wealthy country which receives a relatively low number of asylum seekers chooses to shirk its responsibility.

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