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PNG mooted as refugee centre for Australia


IT WAS A WEEK in which the gloss got knocked of new Australian prime minister Julia Gillard as she dithered and slithered over the issue of a processing centre for refugees.

It was a week that began with Timor Leste as the desired site and ended with Manus Island back on the agenda.

But, according to The Australian newspaper, Julia Gillard is yet to formally raise the use of the Lombrum centre on Manus Island with PNG leaders.

Home Affairs Minister, Brendan O'Connor, says the government is "willing to engage" with Australia's northern neighbour on the issue. Well, yes.

The Australian government is struggling on an issue where it made premature public statements without the requisite consultation, and succeeded only in offending East Timor's leaders.

It also gave a struggling Australian opposition some oxygen, its leader Tony Abbott attacking Ms Gillard as a political amateur "lost in a wilderness of spin".

Last Tuesday, Ms Gillard scrapped Labor’s preference for onshore processing of asylum-seekers, arguing that third-country processing would prevent people-smuggling. It was in this context that Ms Gillard said she had canvassed the idea with East Timorese President, Jose Ramos-Horta.

But on Thursday, as East Timorese politicians attacked the plan, Ms Gillard back flipped saying she had never proposed the centre would be located in Timor Leste.

Mr O’Connor was asked on Melbourne radio whether Manus Island, used for refugee detention by the previous Howard government, could be a possible site.

"We'll engage with any of the countries within the region on this matter that are signatories to the (UN) refugee convention,” he replied.

"PNG is a signatory to the refugee convention and therefore we were willing to engage on that basis, because we believe we need to have a regional approach, one that also recognises the convention in that manner."

At a press conference on Thursday, Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith explained that he had briefed his PNG counterpart, Sam Abal, on Ms Gillard's proposals but had not sought any indications about particular locations for a refugee processing centre.

Mr Abal said PNG had "the place up in Manus" but had not considered reopening it.

A spokeswoman for Michael Somare said "any consideration [on the matter] would have to go before a cabinet meeting".

Asked whether Manus could be an alternative to East Timor, Ms Gillard said she was taking a step at a time, and noted that Dr Ramos-Horta and East Timorese Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao had said they were happy to discuss her proposals.

Manus Governor Michael Sapau has frequently expressed his willingness to have the centre reopened because of the resulting jobs and income for the province. But the facilities have deteriorated in the tropical conditions.

PNG has housed 10,000 West Papuan refugees for about 20 years in a manner recently commended by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Source: ‘PNG now in Labor sights for asylum-seeker centre’ by Matthew Franklin and Rowan Callick, The Australian, 10 July 2010


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Reginald Renagi

I suggest Julia Gillard send Foreign Minister Stephen Smith to consult with both the President and Prime Minister of Timor Leste for that country to agree on an onshore refugee processing centre.

Timor Leste needs the money and is close to the source of where these boat people are coming from.

The so-called Pacific Solution of former PM John Howard was not a good idea. It caused more resentment towards Australia from Pacific leaders.

The Manus detention centre is located within the HMPNGS Tarangau patrol boat base (former RAN naval base). It was a good idea then but once the refugees were left there Australia forgot about them.

This posed a security threat as some of them wandered around freely during the day on the base with guards with them. Those who were sick were not quickly attended to for medical treatment. This caused complaints from international human rights groups at the whole handling of the problem.

Australia must come up with a long-term regional solution by widely consulting with its neighbours. DFAT officials must not be seen to be 'buck-passing' to offload the problem to smaller, poorer nations.

Lastly, if Australia does not want to deal with this problem onshore, then give a lot of money to the Timor Leste government to look after the refugees processed there.

Whichever way one looks at this, there are tough choices for the Australian government to make as part of its new foreign policy strategy on this particular issue.

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