Malaysia transfer arrangement, Papua New Guinea, Christmas Island incident
Friday, 22 July 2011
Interview with Lyndal Curtis, ABC 24
Lyndal Curtis: Chris Bowen, welcome to News 24.
Chris Bowen: Afternoon, Lyndal.
Curtis: Will you be travelling to Malaysia to sign this deal on Monday?
Bowen: Look, I’ll have more to say about it in coming days. We are now at the final stages of the process in relation to the finalisation of the arrangement, which is a very good thing. I’m very much looking forward to releasing the detail and dealing with some of the myths and lies that have been peddled about the arrangement, about Malaysia. It breaks the people smugglers’ business model, pulls the rug out of the marketing model of the people smugglers and improves protection outcomes across the region.
Curtis: Would it be unfair to speculate that it will be signed early next week?
Bowen: Look, I’m not a commentator or a speculator, I’m not going to engage in that. But –
Curtis: But you do know, don’t you?
Bowen: I will have more to say about it in coming days. I’ve said before we’re talking weeks, not months, and now I’m saying I’ll have more to say in coming days.
Curtis: So we’re talking days, not weeks?
Bowen: That’s right, Lyndal.
Curtis: This agreement is between Malaysia and Australia. Has the UNHCR agreed to some sort of oversight role?
Bowen: Well, I’ve made it very clear and my Malaysian counterpart has made it very clear that we are very keen to have UNHCR feedback and involvement, and that is what has been occurring. The UNHCR has been a very important part of the discussions. We’ve had their feedback every step of the way and their views have informed very much what will go into the final arrangement. And it is important to both Malaysia and Australia the UNHCR plays an ongoing role in relation to the processing of the 800 people that get sent from Australia to Malaysia and the 4000 people that get sent from Malaysia to Australia.
Curtis: And a role in protecting their human rights in Malaysia?
Bowen: Well, certainly a role in terms of implementing this agreement and certainly a role in terms of processing and ensuring appropriate protections are in place.
Curtis: Since the deal was announced in May, more than 500 asylum seekers have arrived on Christmas Island, more than 100 of those in the last two days. They aren’t having their claims processed on Christmas Island because they’re going to be moved to another country that’s not Malaysia.
The Foreign Affairs Minister, Kevin Rudd, says it’s too early to finalise talks with Papua New Guinea on taking asylum seekers given the political uncertainty in that country. If those talks don’t progress, will the 500 have to be processed on Christmas Island?
Bowen: Let me make a couple of points about this, Lyndal. On 7 May, the Prime Minister and I made it very clear that people could no longer work on the basis if they came to Australia by boat they would be processed or resettled in Australia. That was a very important message to send.
And in the days since 7 May, we’ve seen a dramatic reduction in the number of boat arrivals. If you look at the same period last year, there are now about 1000 people less arriving over that 74 or 75 day period. So that’s been an important message to send. By the way, in the equivalent number of days after the previous Government announced the Nauru option we had 1700 arrivals. So I think the 500 arrivals needs to be kept in perspective.
Of course, as the Foreign Minister has said, it’s well known we’ve not only been in discussions with Malaysia, but also Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinea has had their own internal issues, had substantial changes in the Cabinet, they’ve had the Prime Minister being ill, an Acting Prime Minister and substantial uncertainty in Papua New Guinea. That has affected the discussions. The Prime Minister and I have both said that in the past. I’ll have more to say about the treatment of the people arrived in between 7 May and the signature date at an appropriate time.
Curtis: But can you afford to leave them in limbo until you can do a deal with another country, whether it be Papua New Guinea or somewhere else?
Bowen: Well, Lyndal, I’ll have more to say at an appropriate time about the treatment, and frankly, today is not the day for making those sorts of announcements. At an appropriate time, I’ll make an announcement about the treatment of those people going forward, in accordance with the principles that have been outlined by the Prime Minister and I previously.
Curtis: Are you talking to any other country other than Malaysia and Papua New Guinea?
Bowen: The active discussions that we have underway are with Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.
Curtis: Is there a chance, though, if those people are left in limbo, you could risk inflaming the sorts of tensions we’ve seen on Christmas Island again this week?
Bowen: Well, let me make one point about that: the tensions we’ve seen on Christmas Island have nothing to do with the group that are being held pending removal to a third country. They are not involved in any way in the tensions.
Look, we’ll manage the situation appropriately. Of course, in relation to those 500, it’s been important to send that message to the region that people cannot work on the basis that if they come to Australia by boat they’d be processed in Australia and/or resettled in Australia. But of course we would take the appropriate steps in relation to the 500 or so people on Christmas Island.
Curtis: As I said, there’s been another night of unrest on Christmas Island: between 30 and 40, possibly up to 100, detainees involved, using makeshift weapons, setting fires. Police used tear gas, beanbag bullets and what are called other force options. What’s the situation there now?
Bowen: Well, it is calm at the moment, but in fairness, Lyndal, these events usually occur in the evening, not during the daytime. We did see a group of 40 or 50 last night, again, engaging in wanton violence. Some people would call this a violent protest; I don’t. It’s simply wanton violence and vandalism: attacking buildings, setting fire to mattresses and trying to cause damage. And the only thing that these people are achieving is potentially swapping their immigration detention for accommodation in a prison. That is the only thing that’s being achieved here.
And I do want to make the point that we’re not talking about the majority of people, far from it. At the Christmas Island detention centre, there’s around 600 people in that detention centre and the vast majority have made it very clear that they want nothing to do with this sort of violence.
Curtis: If the people involved are still having their claims processed, they haven’t reached the end of the line, will their actions during the protest be taken into account during the processing?
Bowen: Yes, yes, because we have a character test: I’ve strengthened the character test; legislation has gone through the Parliament which indicates that if you are convicted of any offence while in immigration detention that can mean you fail the character test and therefore can be denied a permanent visa.
What we won’t do is breach our international obligations and return people to danger, let me be very clear about that. If somebody’s a refugee, they’ll be regarded as a refugee and they’ll attain that refugee status. But the treatment of that person and whether they fail the character test can very much be [inaudible] by engagement in this sort of violent activity.
We do have 62 per cent of people or thereabouts on Christmas Island who are on a negative pathway, who’ve been told they are not regarded as genuine refugees and are in various processes of appealing that, at various stages of appealing that. But the character test is there and it will be used as and when necessary.
Curtis: Chris Bowen, thank you very much for your time.Bowen: Thank you, Lyndal.
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Last update: Tuesday, 30 August 2011 at 13:24 AEST