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PNG suspends asylum talks

Staff Reporter 8/23/2013 | |
PAPUA New Guinea has suspended discussions with Australia on the resettlement of refugees, as its most senior immigration official warned that serious breaches of the asylum-seeker undertakings could "jeopardise implementation" of Kevin Rudd's offshore solution.

There are now no discussions between the Australian and PNG governments about the resettlement of refugees on Manus Island.

The PNG government has also warned the Australian government of new opposition to the reopening of the Manus Island regional processing centre, serious concerns from PNG companies and a lack of consultation that could threaten progress with the extension of the centre to house 3000 asylum-seekers.

PNG suspends Asylum Talk. Photo source: The Australian.
In a confidential letter obtained by The Weekend Australian, PNG's chief migration officer Mataio Rabura told Australia's Department of Immigration and Customs that Australian access to the building site at Manus and discussions on resettlement had been suspended. Mr Rabura complained about Australian officials not consulting him; tenders for work only being advertised in Australia, effectively delivering a snub to the PNG Defence Force that "can put up tents"; PNG companies not receiving the business suggested by Mr Rudd and PNG He described the situation as one that could "jeopardise implementation of the agreement reached by our two prime ministers".

Mr Rabura said DIAC had sought meetings to discuss resettlement but added, "I am not ready to engage in discussions on resettlement until outstanding matters relating to processing are resolved."

Immigration Minister Tony Burke yesterday confirmed the PNG government had suspended access to the site on Manus Island, which is being expanded to accommodate 3000 asylum-seekers, but said access had been restored.

He said Australian government officials yesterday received a letter from Mr Rabura, which clarified that issues relating to the east Lorengau site had been settled. "That site is now available for us to begin work on," Mr Burke said.

On the question of resettlement, Mr Burke said an Australian official in PNG had been working "with the PNG government and potential employer organisations and non-government organisations to make sure that settlement arrangements are ready to go by the time the first positive determinations are made".

"At this stage it is still some time before any of the refugee assessments will be completed," Mr Burke said.

The resettlement of refugees in PNG is a key point in the deal Mr Rudd announced on July 19 because it is the basis for his assertion that no asylum-seekers will come to Australia from Manus Island.

The emergence of Mr Rabura's letter follows the publication of a confidential document in The Australian yesterday that highlighted tensions over a lack of planning and a disregard for protocol before the announcement of the July 19 agreement.

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 said in the 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 back-up 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."

Mr Burke said yesterday the government was confident there was capacity on Manus Island to hold "well beyond" 10,000 asylum-seekers, but Labor was yet to budget for such a ramp-up of its regional resettlement arrangement. He said 3000 asylum-seekers could be accommodated on both the Lombrum and east Lorengau sites combined.

Another site, not favoured by the PNG government, at the old Manus Island airport has been identified to host up to 4000 detainees.

Mr Burke said a plot of land on the western end of Manus Island could host another 10,000 asylum-seekers.

"Now at the moment I don't expect we are going to need those sites," he said yesterday.

The Immigration Minister conceded that if boats continued to arrive at an increasing pace, capacity would have to be bolstered and more funds would need to be diverted to the offshore processing regime.

"If we had a much bigger surge than what we have had so far, we would have to make decisions about increasing the capacity at Manus," Mr Burke said.

"If you increase capacity, you would have to increase funding - I am not expecting you would have to, but if you were to make that decision it would cost more money."

Manus Island, off the northeast coast of PNG, 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 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 have arrived since the PNG deal was announced.Prime Minister Peter O'Neill; and hasty decision-making.

The Australian

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