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PNG “mateship” on asylum seekers no substitute for rigorous policy and decent conditions

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been keen to show off the positives of his trip to PNG. AAP/Alan Porritt

Tony Abbott was desperate to paint his just-completed trip to Papua New Guinea in highly positive terms but as far as asylum seeker policy is concerned, it has just thrown up more problems and questions and exposed what a shambles the “PNG solution” is.

Where some of the people who come out of the process as genuine refugees will then go is now one of those “known unknowns”. Whether the processing itself is being done with sufficient competence and integrity surely has to be a concern. And both countries appear to care less and less (if that’s possible) about the human rights of the people on Manus – their prime preoccupation being to limit information coming out that might be embarrassing or damaging.

After his Friday talks with Abbott, PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill made it clear his country will not resettle all those found to be refugees. He wants other Pacific countries to accept some.

“We will take some and we’ll take as much as we can,” he said. “But as we have stated at the initial stage when we agreed to this, we will also want all the other countries within the region [to participate].”

This sort of qualification has periodically been thrown up in one form or another by PNG. But the Australian government has given the impression that PNG would take the full refugee component.

Abbott, asked on February 17 whether it was still the plan to settle refugees in PNG as originally conceived under then PM Kevin Rudd, said: “Well that is still very much available and Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has reassured me repeatedly that the same deal that was on offer to the former government remains on offer.”

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said on February 18: “Mr Abbott spoke with Prime Minister O'Neill today … [he] confirmed Papua New Guinea’s ongoing commitment to offshore processing on Manus Island and resettlement in Papua New Guinea.”

When on March 2 he announced a joint ministerial forum to oversee the regional resettlement arrangement Morrison said it would “aid us to keep this important arrangement on track and translate announcements into action, when it comes to the critical issues of processing claims and resettling refugees in PNG”.

Abbott was pressed while in PNG on when and how come things had changed - he just avoided answering.

PNG has yet to put its resettlement plan to its parliament – it is due to do that in May. Abbott said that would mean resettlement of those found to be refugees ought to be taking place in May and June.

Now that it is beyond doubt that PNG wants to offload some refugees, where will they go? Is Australia negotiating with other Pacific countries? “I’m not going to imperil discussions that we’re having,” Abbott said.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop did recently sound out the Cambodia government about asylum seekers but the Australian government was less forthcoming about these discussions than its Cambodian counterpart and the nature of these talks was unclear.

O'Neill also declared at Friday’s joint news conference that “a good majority” of those processed were economic refugees and would be repatriated.

Abbott later invoked former Labor minister Bob Carr’s assessment (while in government) to back up what he described as O'Neill’s “strong suspicion”.

Yet there was not any precision. Is this based on numbers or is this some generalisation on impressions? And how come this can be said while people don’t seem to be emerging, processed, out of the system?

While it may be true that the claims of many won’t stack up, given the maladministration surrounding Manus in general, one has to wonder how rough and ready the assessment process is (it is being done by PNG with Australian mentoring).

The shenanigans over the investigation of human rights at Manus by PNG Justice David Cannings does not give confidence in the behaviour of either government.

Cannings took journalists when he visited the detention centre late last week, obviously to the annoyance of both governments.

Next thing, his inquiry – which the judge himself had initiated - was shut down by the PNG government.

PNG Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato told Fairfax Media that the Abbott government was consulted and strongly backed the decision, saying Morrison and Bishop shared his concern about the inquiry and thought it should be challenged.

This is perhaps not surprising after the recent statement that other, more official inquiries the two countries were holding should be “synthesised”.

But Abbott himself said he did not know about the action ahead of time and just talked about PNG’s “vigorous and independent” legal system.

The judge is now opening a new inquiry.

The reporting by the journalists who visited the centre indicated conditions that should be totally unacceptable.

At their joint news conference Abbott said he was gratified to have from O'Neill his assurance that the people and government of PNG were committed to “staying the course”.

“I really value the mateship that Peter O'Neill has shown to Australia on this.” The following day he said: “The co-operation that we are getting from PNG is a real act of mateship on their part and I’m really thrilled by it.”

It’s a sort of Orwellian parallel reality: people held in dreadful conditions, two governments conspiring to traduce their rights and suppress as much information as they can, and no one having the slightest clue about the future of people who really did flee persecution – while Abbott declares it’s been “a very successful visit”.

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