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O'Neill unclear on specifics of Rudd government refugee plan

Staff Reporter 7/22/2013 | |
PAPUA New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill is unclear on a total quota, cost or how long Australia will foot the bill for the refugee resettlement deal struck with the Federal Government.

Mr O'Neill flew back into a political storm in Port Moresby yesterday after signing the plan in Brisbane on Friday and publicly appealed to his strife-torn nation to accept the agreement.

The Pacific leader revealed the first boatload of asylum seekers to be processed under new rules was due at Manus Island detention centre, 810km north of the capital, within days.

PNG PM Peter O'neil not sure of deal .Couriermail Photo
But he was unable to put a dollar figure on the total cost of the refugee and resettlement program, a time frame on how long it would continue, or how much Kevin Rudd had committed to funding in the enhanced billion-dollar aid budget.

"Costings have not been done. I cannot just simply give you a figure that is imaginary,'' Mr O'Neill said.

"I think Papua New Guinea has done well out of this. It is a good deal for the country.''

Asked how many refugees PNG could realistically accept, Mr O'Neill said he believed the number of boat arrivals, averaging about 100 a day, would drastically fall off under the prospect of resettlement.

"We don't know the numbers yet. I don't think the numbers are going to be as big as what we think. I think there will be a quick decline. You can see from the report that smugglers who are now profiting from this exercise have already said they are going to stop boat people travelling.

"Genuine refugees will still travel but not the economic migrants.

"I think it will fall off and there will be much lower numbers.''

Manus Island facility would be fast-tracked from its present capacity of 250 to house 600 by next year while they would negotiate with other Pacific Island nations to get them to accept a certain quota of genuine refugees, he said.

His decision to support Mr Rudd's political deterrent to resettle genuine refugees who illegally arrive by boat in Australia has caused uproar in the poverty-stricken developing nation with a population of 7 million.

Locals have expressed concern about a "culture clash" and open hostility to the mostly Muslim refugees.

"I think those fears are unfounded, there is nothing in the agreement that says refugees will get priority over our citizens," he said.

"We call ourselves a Christian country. I think we need to show some compassion and some sympathy to genuine refugees.''

Mr O'Neill said it was not a new deal but one struck with the Howard government in 2006, restarted by the Gillard government, and "extended further" by the Rudd Government.

PNG is a land of contrasts full of potential in tourism, mining and a $19 billion gas project.

It is also beset by lawlessness, high unemployment, poverty, crumbling infrastructure and a health, housing and education crisis.

Under the new refugee deal, Australia will half fund the rebuild of PNG higher education system, build a new hospital at Lae, and upgrade the airport, health centres and schools at Manus Island.

PNG Opposition leader Belden Nama said it was an "agreement between two men" and

"Peter O'Neill is making decisions like a chicken with no head," he said.

He said it was kow-towing to old colonial masters.

"Do we need to make money off asylum seekers? No. PNG's problem is not money, but bad financial management."

At the notorious Six Mile market, a haven for violence and petty crime, betel nut seller Grace Moh, 25, said they were deadly opposed to the move.

"We don't want to get corrupted by other cultures," said fellow shopkeeper Obert Baree.

"They come to spoil us."

PNG has passed a motion in Parliament to talk about banning other religions from the Christian-dominated nation.

Courier Mail

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