Difficulties fester in Australia's asylum seeker deal with PNG
Ongoing difficulties in Australia's asylum seeker deal with PNG could yet cause great political embarrasment for Canberra.
Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has told his Australian counterpart Tony Abbott that his government needs to go back to the drawing board on its policy for resettling refugees from Australia's Manus Island detention centre.
Over a year after Manus reopened, 1060 people are detained there, and less than 90 interim refugee status assessments have been carried out.
Only 44 have been found to be refugees but still remain on Manus.
A South East Asia/Pacific specialist Damien Kingsbury from Deakin University says ongoing difficulties in the deal with PNG could yet cause great political embarrassment for Canberra
He spoke to Johnny Blades who asked him if PNG entered into the Manus deal strictly in order to leverage more control on where Australia's aid money goes in PNG.
DAMIEN KINGSBURY: Well, to answer that would be to speculate on the motives for the PNG government agreeing to the deal in the first place. But it did appear that the PNG government accepted the arrangement under some duress or under some pressure, that they were never entirely happy with it, and they're now finding that the domestic backlash is such that it may not work out as initially anticipated.
JOHNNY BLADES: They (PNG) went into it because they were going to get something out of it. They said that they were getting more sort of control over the Australian aid packages into their own development aims, perhaps they underestimated the lack of appetite around PNG for resettling the refugees?
DK: Oh, absolutely. I think they probably understood that there was a lack of interest in or support for it. But it was perhaps, I think, seen as a political imperative or an economic imperative maybe on the part of the government. And they did it without due consultation or without adequate recognition of the degree of lack of acceptance on the part of the wider community.
JB: And there's a lot of uncertainty, isn't there, over the legal framework: you've got a couple of challenges about the agreement pending in the PNG courts, right?
DK: Yeah, exactly. And there are issues of course with the issue of who can settle in PNG, who can take out citizenship, what the status of residency is, land ownership. Then of course, there are things like employment, whether or not people can make a living in that particular environment and if not, what sort of support mechanisms would be in place to support the refugees? it was, I think, a very poorly conceived idea to start with and I don't think it's been helped by the lack of due process that was applied to it by the PNG government, and we're now seeing that come home to roost.
JB: Do you think the Australian government should have, could have, thought it out differently?
DK: Well, certainly. But look the Australian government's been very keen to develop this offshore processing programme for domestic political reasons. And in a sense: out of sight, out of mind is good enough. If you can dump asylum seekers in offshore detention centres, then that is enough for the government. That's all they really want to care about. We have a similar problem now with Cambodia, which hasn't quite developed yet to the extent that is has in PNG, but has every potential to do so. It is again, a case of a government trying to offload an issue that is Australia's. And I wouldn't say "a problem" because I'm not sure that asylum seekers who come by boat do constitute a genuine problem. I think rather it's a political issue, a political football that's been kicked around. And it's been kicked around in a way... in a field, if you like, that's perhaps not ready to have that particular game played out.
JB: So is it still as politically explosive for the Australian public now that (Australian Immigration Minister) Scott Morrison indicates that policy has kind of worked to stem the tide of the boats coming in, but also now that it's also festering in terms of these legal uncertainties, the violence up at Manus and the other problems around it?
DK: There's no question that this continues to be a politically divisive policy, and one that has the potential for very great political embarrassment. Scott Morrison's claims about the problem having been resolved are very much political rhetoric. Putting a cork in a bottle doesn't change the contents. The asylum seekers are still there. It's just that they're being stopped either from travelling or if they have travelled, they are now being processed in ways which have created or led to the types or problems that we're now seeing unfold.
JB: At the weekend, when Tony Abbott dropped by Port Moresby on his way to Indonesia, when he talked to Peter O'Neill about this issue, do you imagine he would have been gently applying some pressure: look, can we get the resettlement process rocking?
DK: Yeah, absolutely. I don't think it would have been a social visit. It wasn't just dropping by to say hi to the neighbours. And that is overwhelmingly the key political issue between Australia and PNG at the moment, and it would've undoubtedly been the subject of the discussion. Whether or not there was pressure is, again, speculative. But one would imagine that there was at least a fairly forthright discussion that if this policy is going to work in the Australian government's interests, it needs to work in PNG, and at this stage it doesn't appear to be doing so like the way the Australian government envisaged.
JB: So if the PNG situation is not quickly resolved and there might be, for instance, more problems at the centre or with the legality issue, what does Abbott do about the situation?
DK: It's a very difficult situation. I think that the fact that the issue of asylum seekers arriving by boat has been politicised to the extent it has and has been wound up as a critical political issue when in fact in substantive terms it's not, it's now such a big thing that's it's almost impossible to step back from. So I'm not sure what the government would do. If I was running policy on this particular issue, I would be going, trying to resolve the problems in the countries that these people are fleeing in the first instance; trying to ensure they don't feel they have to flee, and secondly, if they did, that when they went to second countries - usually Indonesia in the case of Australia - there was a proper, internationally recognised processing centre there where they could go and get sorted through very quickly and under the auspices of the UNHCR and the International Organisation of Migration. Now Australia could fund that - probably at significantly less than the cost of the camps that it's currently funding. And the people that come out of that process would then be given asylum in Australia or in any of the other countries of the world which accepts refugees. That would fix the problem but that's not an approach that this particular government is interested in taking.
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