RNZ International senior journalist Johnny Blades has the latest news from our Pacific neighbours – changes proposed for the Australian detention centre at Manus Island and drama on sleepy Norfolk Island.
Read an edited snapshot of the conversation:
One of the big stories that RNZI has been talking about is the decision by the Supreme Court in PNG to declare the Australian detention centre for asylum seekers illegal. The PNG government said ‘Yes, we’ll close it’, but it’s not closed, is it?
Johnny Blades: It is still open, but we’ve just ascertained today, in fact, from Immigration PNG… they’re now saying that the people detained there are now free to walk around the island, to move around. So they’re not being detained against their will, so to speak, according to them. But it’s all very dubious. So the ruling two weeks ago that holding people against their will was against PNG’s constitution and the PNG and Australian governments must immediately release these people… The response to that, as you said, was PNG said ‘We will close the centre’, but [PNG and Canberra] are both buying time, saying we’re going to take stock of this decision.
They were very different stories. The PNG president said ‘Yes, we’re going to close it, it’s closed tomorrow’. And at the same time the Australian Immigration Minister said ‘It’s not going to close’.
Johnny Blades: It’s a bit of an arm wrestle. Peter Dutton, the Australian immigration minister, is standing firm on this. There are negotiations going on between those two governments. I think it’s going to take a while. They’re looking at what their options are, and one of them may be that they make Manus an open facility where people can move around.
Bear in mind that some of the people who’d been sent there against their will... have already been found to be genuine refugees by the refugee claims processing system. They had already been – some of them – moved to a transitional centre on Manus Island, where they were theoretically being prepared for integration into PNG society. And some had also been able to move around in Manus freely, anyway. But the vast majority of them, as we understood it, are still locked up.
Can anyone leave Manus Island? Where is it, actually?
Johnny Blades: No, it’s very remote. It’s way up the top, underneath the equator, quite remote to the mainland of PNG. It is its own province, it’s very hard to get to. You can only really get there by plane, or boat, but you know, let’s not talk about boat people, because that was half the problem, wasn’t it? Australia a few years ago decided anyone arriving in Australian waters by boat would be processed offshore and would never make it to Australia – so they sent them either to Manus Island, PNG – that’s where a lot of the males went – or Nauru, some went to Christmas Island, which is part of Australia.
How long has Manus been running as a detention centre?
Johnny Blades: In this latest incarnation it’s been three or so years. But it was earlier used as a processing centre by the John Howard government, and that’s when they originally forged this so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ of offshore processing.
In 2007 when Kevin Rudd came to power, one of the things he said was ‘We’re going to dismantle this.’ And he did. But then a few years later he reopened it because all the boats started arriving again, or it became an issue for the Australian public. It’s still a very big issue.
There have been numerous reports presented to the Australian senate which have shown how both on Nauru and Manus on PNG how the detainees have been in terrible conditions, a sort of mental torture. There’s been multiple cases of self-harm.
Who runs the centres?
Johnny Blades: Ostensibly, up in Manus, the PNG immigration department was doing the processing, at a glacial pace. But managing the day to day operations was Broadspectrum – it’s an Australian company which had Wilson Security as one of its contractors, so Aussies.
I’d see some of these people at the PNG airport coming through, big lads who do mining work. Some have called them pretty thuggish because some of the responses to the protest actions by the detainees has been brutal. We saw early in 2014 an Iranian asylum seeker was brutally murdered by guards at Manus.
Norfolk Island doesn’t often get into RNZI bulletins, but just recently there’s almost this kind of war of independence going on – not with guns, thankfully.
Johnny Blades: Yes, so far not violent. Since ’79 they’ve had limited self-government, but last year Canberra foisted this plan on them that there was going to be a transition process put in place and by July this year Norfolk island’s administration will be the equivalent of a local council within New South Wales. And the people there are really unhappy about it. Right now they’ve been protesting for two or three weeks outside the Norfolk legislature, really angry about this because they all feel that it’s just been railroaded through without much consultation.
What’s the situation with Lord Howe Island, the other inhabited island between [New Zealand and Australia]? Are they a separate territory or are they part of New South Wales?
Johnny Blades: They didn’t have the limited self-governing abilities that Norfolk had until now. Lord Howe has got its own problems ‘cause they’ve got that massive rat eradication system which has divided the island. They’ve got rats there and the authorities want to drop some sort of poison, an aerial drop. Half the residents don’t want it and half do. The half who don’t want it think it’s going to endanger their health and so forth.
If Norfolk Island declared independence – is that one of the options the locals are thinking of?
Johnny Blades: Since all this stuff came up and they felt Canberra wasn’t responding fairly to their grievances about this and their request for it to be put off until it had been fully consulted over, they have taken their matter to the undecolonisation committee. They want to get this decolonisation process underway, so Australia has got a bit of a situation on its hands here.