KEVIN Rudd's plan to house thousands of asylum-seekers in tents on Manus Island would be beyond the capacity of Papua New Guinea to deliver, with its most senior immigration official pleading "God help us" when he was briefed on the plan.
In a confidential briefing note obtained by The Australian, the country's Chief Migration Officer, Mataio Rabura, warned PNG Foreign Affairs and Immigration Minister Rimbink Pato on July 18 of serious capacity constraints and security implications of the move to house nearly 3000 people in tents on the island. The document also highlights tensions over a lack of planning and a disregard for protocol before the announcement of the July 19 agreement between Kevin Rudd and PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill.
|Boat people. Getty Images|
Under the agreement, any asylum-seeker arriving by boat after July 19 will be sent to Manus Island and will be unable to apply for settlement in Australia, even if their refugee claim is accepted."Tent accommodation for Single Adult Males (SAMs) was a major reason for (previous) trouble at the centre," Mr Rabura says in his briefing note. "If we are talking about 3000, God help us. Australia must provide better accommodation rather than tents. Security is going to be an issue for PNG. From experience, (the major contractor) G4S will not be able to contain trouble created by such a large number of SAMs and the onus will be on PNG to provide backup support (Police Mobile Squad Units), especially if they climb over fences. Assessment of claims by 3000 asylum-seekers is going to be an enormous task which is beyond (PNG) capacities and capabilities."
Manus Island, off the northeast coast of the country, was used to house asylum-seekers under the Howard government's Pacific Solution between 2001 and 2004, before being reopened by Labor last year. There have been occasional outbreaks of violence at the centre, including one last last year.
Since announcing its PNG deal, the Rudd government has made much of the willingness of Port Moresby to rapidly increase capacity if required. Mindful of concerns that people-smugglers may seek to overwhelm the facility on Manus Island, originally slated by Labor to hold 600 when complete, the government has said tents and other temporary accommodation could be used to ramp up capacity quickly.
The government has suggested capacity would be expanded to 3000 places and could hold up to 10,000 people in a "tent city" arrangement.
There are 382 asylum-seekers currently on Manus Island, a fraction of the 2883 asylum-seekers to arrive in Australian waters since Labor unveiled its PNG solution.
Immigration Minister Tony Burke said yesterday it was not possible to predict the ultimate capacity of Manus Island, saying there were a range of sites that could be used if required.
"I know there is always an angle, can this be overwhelmed in some way? The answer is, no. No it can't be and it won't be," he said.
The briefing note reveals that the Deputy Australian High Commissioner, Margaret Adamson, and other Australian officials pressed for the urgent adoption of a work plan and organised a charter aircraft to Manus Island on July 17 for a visit "to identify possible sites" to accommodate asylum-seekers. Within 48 hours, the new policy underpinning Australia's refugee program was unveiled.
"All the additional transferees numbering around 2700 would be accommodated in tents," Mr Rabura's briefing note states.
"On this matter, I was told that the two prime ministers had agreed that since their agreement was to be effected immediately, the most feasible option was to erect tents to accommodate the 2700-plus transferees.
"Whether suitable accommodation would be constructed later on was not confirmed.
"This statement was for my benefit because they were aware that I had directed that no more transferees were to be accommodated in tents."
The note - copied to the Chief Secretary to Government, Sir Manasupe Zurenoue, and the acting Secretary for Foreign Affairs, William Dihm - says PNG "needs to be in control of implementing the agreement".
"Recent communication by the High Commissioner (for Australia) directly to you, Governor of Manus and the Open Member for Manus of the agreement and visit by Minister (Tony) Burke is an example of total disregard of protocol and normal courtesy, but more important that such communication should be in a diplomatic note to the Department of Foreign Affairs," it says.
"The Australians appear to have more information on the agreement than myself as reflected in this report and I need to confirm certain statements because the implications are great."
The note also identified key shortcomings on Manus Island including power, water, sewerage, food preparation and roads.
The memo says the sewerage system on site is sufficient to cover a small increase in capacity, "however will require work if numbers are to increase".
The memo described the centre kitchen as the "No 1" health risk for the centre, saying it would "require rectification if numbers are to be increased".
Mr Rudd's plans to halt the flow of asylum-seekers to Australia form a key plank of his pitch for re-election. His plan has been straining under the weight of nearly 3000 boat arrivals and recent comments from Mr O'Neill and Mr Pato that asylum-seekers transferred to Manus Island could be resettled elsewhere, including Australia.
On Tuesday a regional summit on the movement of asylum-seekers, convened in Jakarta by Mr Rudd and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, failed to deliver any concrete measures. The plan is also subject to legal challenges in PNG and Australia.
The use of tents has long been a problem in detention centres. Although authorities have been forced to use them to increase accommodation at swollen centres, they are considered high risk.