Sri Lankan returns, Afghan return, Manus Island, Nauru, 'no advantage' principle for people onshore, humanitarian intake
Thursday, 22 November 2012
Doorstop interview, Sydney
Chris Bowen: Good afternoon. Well, I have several things to announce today so bear with me. I'll be making those announcements and then happy to take some questions.
Firstly, as you know, in the last several weeks Australia has been returning a significant number of people to Sri Lanka who are clearly undertaking economic migration and who do not engage Australia's international obligations. Three hundred and twenty-six people have been returned involuntarily to Sri Lanka in recent weeks.
Today, I can confirm that our most significant return effort so far is presently underway. A short time ago, a Royal Australian Air Force KC-30 aircraft left Darwin for Colombo carrying 100 Sri Lankan returnees. This brings the total number of involuntary Sri Lankan returnees in recent weeks to 426 and the total number of people who have returned to Sri Lanka – either voluntarily or involuntarily – since 13 August, to 525.
Now, these returns will continue. Our humanitarian program is for people who are at risk of persecution, not for people seeking to undertake economic migration. We'll continue these returns for as long as it takes for people who might be tempted by the wiles of people smugglers in Sri Lanka to undertake economic migration, to realise that part of migration to Australia is closed. Of course, I'll continue to provide further updates on these returns as they occur.
I can also today announce that overnight our first involuntary return of an asylum seeker to Afghanistan was completed. This was the first involuntary return under the Australia-Afghanistan-UNHCR agreement, which was negotiated and signed in 2011. The individual concerned had been found not to be a refugee, both by my department and by the Refugee Review Tribunal. Again, it's important that people who are not able to sustain a claim for refugee status in Australia are returned to the country they have left. And we'll continue to work with the Government of Afghanistan and the IOM and the UNHCR on further returns.
Next, I can announce today that the first transfer of asylum seekers to Manus Island and Papua New Guinea was undertaken overnight and completed this morning. Nineteen people arrived on Manus Island at around 8.30 am Manus Island time, that's 9.30 am Australian Eastern Daylight Saving Time today. This first group of 19 people is made up of Iranians and Sri Lankans. It also consisted of family groups. At this stage, family groups are best accommodated on Manus Island, as opposed to Nauru. Again, people smugglers have been peddling the lie that if you come to Australia by boat as a member of a family, then you wouldn't be processed in another country, you'd be processed in Australia. Obviously, that is not the case and today's transfer and the transfers that will follow will underline that point.
Obviously, we have responsibilities to ensure that children and families are treated appropriately and have the appropriate support. So today I'm announcing that the organisation Save the Children has been engaged by the government to provide specific services designed for children, including ongoing support for those accommodated at the centre, care and welfare programs specifically designed for people who are transferred, especially children. Save the Children will work with the other service providers – the Salvation Army, G4S, IHMS – in ensuring those appropriate services are available on Manus Island. There of course will continue to be transfers to Manus Island and Nauru, and again, the Department of Immigration will provide those updates.
I'd also like to provide you today with an update on the situation in relation to the processing centre on Nauru. Firstly, I can announce that the government has signed a contract with the Brisbane construction company Canstruct for the construction of the first stage of the permanent facility on Nauru, which will cater for 900 people. Preliminary survey and geotechnical work has commenced, and Canstruct is in the process of procuring building materials, plant and equipment, and is organising its freight. A large number of the construction staff are expected to be locally engaged Nauruans, and I'll be providing further updates on the construction progress and other details in due course.
I'd also like to give you an update on the processing of asylum claims for those asylum seekers in Nauru. As you know, the processing of those claims will occur under Nauruan law and under the Nauruan system. We've been working closely with the Nauruan authorities on the establishment of this processing. In the next week, interviews to commence the capturing of biographical information and information that may be relevant to their claims will commence. It's expected that the full assessment of their claims will commence early in the new year.
Of course, the issuing of protection visas will not be considered for a substantial amount of time under the 'no advantage' principle that the government has previously publicly committed to and is implementing.
I also just want to give you a brief update on the monitoring and oversight arrangements for the processing on Nauru. Of course, the Expert Panel recommended – in an approach different to that taken by previous governments – that there be a role for non-government organisations and others in monitoring the operation of the centre on Nauru. As you know, the government's already worked with the Government of Nauru to facilitate the entry of organisations such as Red Cross and Amnesty International to Nauru and to the centre. As an interim step to the establishment of the monitoring committee, Nauru and Australia have established a joint advisory committee that is jointly chaired by Nauruan and Australian officials, and also consists of Mr Paris Aristotle the Chair of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Detention, Professor Nicholas Procter, Associate Professor Mary Anne Kenny and Dr Maryanne Loughry, who are each experts in the field of asylum seeker care and support.
I also want to make some announcements today about the onshore detention network. Recent high arrival rates have placed pressure on our detention network, and it's sensible in managing this – and also in terms of prudent contingency planning – that we take some steps to expand the capacity of our onshore detention network.
Previously, as you know, there was a temporary detention facility in Pontville in Tasmania. After this centre was closed, the Premier of Tasmania, Lara Giddings, and the Mayor of Brighton both strongly lobbied me to see the centre reactivated, because of the economic benefit for Tasmania – the jobs created – and the generally positive experience of the Pontville community with the centre. Given the need to expand our detention capacity, it makes sense to recommission the Pontville centre at this time. It had, of course, been held for contingency for this very purpose.
It's also necessary to increase the capacity of the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation site at Broadmeadows to allow for an increase of another 300 people. Other sites around the network will have some temporary capacity increases while this work proceeds, and particularly while we work to increase capacity on Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Now, the second-last thing I wanted to update you on today is the processing and management of those people who arrived by boat after 13 August who are not sent to Nauru or Manus Island because of capacity constraints at those places. The underlying principle of 'no-advantage' is the most important recommendation of the Houston Expert Panel; that is, that people who arrive in Australia by boat should not receive an advantage in terms of receiving a permanent visa over those who are awaiting resettlement in Australia in places throughout our region.
Accordingly, the government will implement the no-advantage principle in relation to boat arrivals who are processed in Australia that are not – that is, those that are not immediately returned to their home country, or sent to Nauru or Papua New Guinea. People who have their claims processed in Australia and are found to be refugees will remain on bridging visas until they are issued with a protection visa in accord with the no-advantage principle. This will still be subject – they will still be subject to potential future transfer to Nauru or Papua New Guinea at a date when increased capacity becomes available.
Now, of course, just as people who are on Nauru and Manus Island do not receive work rights, people on bridging visas in Australia also will not have the right to work. So some people who arrived in Australia after 13 August will be processed in Australia and processed in the community, but will remain on bridging visas, even after they are regarded, through the process, as refugees.
The final matter I wanted to update you on is a brief update on progress in the government's commitment to increase the refugee intake to 20 000. This is very important, the largest increase in thirty years, and also a very important way of showing people that they have an alternative route to Australia: you don't have to risk your life on a boat to get a visa in Australia, but Australia has a generous and appropriate offshore refugee program.
We are on track to deliver those 20 000 places. This is the right thing to do, as I say, and it gives people languishing in refugee camps around the world a better and fairer chance of resettlement in Australia. By way of a progress report, more than 2300 refugee visas have been issued overseas this financial year, including 320 vulnerable women and their dependents. We've been working closely with the UNHCR to ensure that this 20 000 figure is delivered and there are a very substantial number of people who have been interviewed and are now going through their final checks for resettlement to Australia.
Often in this debate the fate of people who are languishing in camps and facilities around the world, who can't afford a people smuggler or who don't want to risk the lives of their family to get to Australia by boat, are forgotten. Well they're not forgotten by our refugee program, and it's important while updating you on those other matters to also update you on progress in relation to the 20 000.
Now there's a lot there folks; happy to take some questions.
Journalist: How many of those sent to Manus Island are children?
Bowen: We have four, four children of the 19.
Journalist: How many families?
Bowen: There are one, two, three, four, five, six, seven family groups.
Journalist: How old are the kids?
Bowen: The kids are a range of ages of course. We have seven adult females, eight adult males.
Journalist: How do you plan to support their health and education needs, apart from what you've mentioned regarding Save the Children?
Bowen: In terms of education, they have access to the Papua New Guinea education system as negotiated, and of course we will provide all the necessary support through IHMS in terms of mental health, and I'm glad we have Save the Children on board to assist in that as well and assist the work the Salvation Army's doing. Of course we'll, in due course, have similar monitoring and advice arrangements that I've just announced for Nauru on Manus Island.
Journalist: When will they be processed?
Bowen: Well I've just announced what the steps we're taking to begin processing on Nauru –
Journalist: - On Manus Island.
Bowen: I'll make further announcements about that in due course.
Journalist: More than half of all refugees spent five years or more at refugee camps globally. If you're serious about the no-advantage test, these people are going to spend five years on Manus Island or on bridging visas. Are you concerned about their welfare in that time?
Bowen: I'm concerned about the welfare of all asylum seekers –
Journalist: For more than five years?
Bowen: - Let me answer your question. Those who come to Australia by boat and those who don't come to Australia by boat, but I've said repeatedly – repeatedly – that the no-advantage test will mean that people will wait for a very substantial period. Could it be five years? Yes it could.
Journalist: Do you have any – can you give any definition or clarity on this no-advantage principle. I mean, as this guy said, it can be three years, it could be five years, it depends on where you are in the region. Can you give us any benchmark?
Bowen: Well what I'm not going to do is provide a how-to guide for people smugglers in terms of the full details, but what I have said, repeatedly, is that the five year figure is an accurate one and it could be up to five years. Five years could be an accurate reflection of how long people would wait, depending on their individual circumstances in relation to how long they would have waited at a regional processing centre around the South-East Asia region.
Journalist: Just on the domestic application of the no-advantage principle, I think you've had around 7500 or 8000 people arrive since August 13 –
Bowen: Substantial numbers.
Journalist: You've got a capacity on Nauru and PNG of around 2000, so say you've got around 5000 people who you would assume would be subject to at least their processing here in Australia. Can you tell us how many people will be cut loose on these new bridging visas and subject to the no-advantage principle in Australia?
Bowen: Well that will be a work-in-progress, obviously. Partly, it will depend on the flow-through we see in Nauru in terms of voluntary returns and Manus Island. We've seen some people leave Nauru voluntarily, not a huge amount but we've seen some, obviously we'll see if that continues but you'll see some flow-through. There'll be regular updates provided, I'm not providing a figure today, I'm announcing the principle that people will be processed in Australia but the no-advantage principle will apply.
Journalist: You must have a working estimate though, the department must have produced a working estimate for their own purposes I would have thought.
Bowen: Well as I say, it depends on a range of circumstances, including arrival rates into the future, the success of the measures that I'm announcing today, and other matters. But the processing will start from now on.
Journalist: Those on the bridging visas there, they're not allowed to work, how do they support themselves and how do you guarantee that their mental health and their wellbeing will be looked after?
Bowen: They'll receive the same support as other people on bridging visas, which is 89 per cent of the special benefit under the relevant support schemes. It's not a generous allocation, but it's an appropriate allocation which means that they can obviously provide for the basic needs that they have.
Again, yes we will, as we have with other people on bridging visas, monitor their wellbeing and their mental health. It is a difficult situation for them, just as it is a difficult situation for the 42 million displaced people around the world who don't have the chance to come to Australia by boat.
Journalist: Minister, Andrew Thomas from Al-Jazeera, you – Amnesty are on the island of Nauru at the moment, they came out yesterday and said the conditions there were appalling. The UN Commissioner for Human Rights has already called conditions there unbearable. Are you aware of the reputation for cruelty, frankly, that Australia is now developing overseas?
Bowen: I completely reject that assertion. Obviously every country has a border protection policy that they put in place and every country respects the rights of other countries to implement policies. Now in relation to Amnesty International, we facilitated their entry to Nauru and the centre, as well as Red Cross, which wasn't the case when Nauru was previously being operated that such easy access was given to non-government organisations such as this.
Amnesty International opposed the Nauru detention facility – or the Nauru processing facility before they got there, they oppose it after they leave. I'm unsurprised by that. Of course, if they have constructive suggestions to make we will listen to them, but they have a fundamentally different approach.
I believe the overriding moral and humanitarian obligation on the Australian Government is to stop people drowning at sea. And yes, that means difficult decisions must be taken. Yes, that means hard decisions must be announced. But there is nothing moral, nothing humanitarian, nothing acceptable about the types of deaths, the drowning's, that we've seen people coming to Australia by boat.
[Many questions asked at once…]
Bowen: Well hang on, one or two at a time.
Journalist: Amnesty International have raised some serious questions about – some serious issues around self-harm, hunger strikes, suicide attempts amongst people on Nauru.
Bowen: Well, as I say –
Journalist: Will you respond to their report and their investigation?
Bowen: Well of course –
Journalist: Or are you saying they're biased?
Bowen: Well I'm saying they have a point-of-view, of course they have a point-of-view, they have a point-of-view that I don't share. I've been to Nauru. I've spoken to the people on Nauru. Yes, if they have a report to make to the Australian Government we will look at that report and we will respond, and if they have constructive suggestions to make as to how they think things should be run on Nauru we will take that into consideration, just as we would the Red Cross or anybody else visiting who wants to make those points.
But there is a fundamentally different approach from Amnesty International. They announced they oppose the Nauru facility when we announced we would build it, so the fact that they have the view after having been there, I find unsurprising.
Journalist: Ideology is one thing, reporting on what you've seen is something completely different, isn't it?
Bowen: I just said, if they have a report to make we will look at it and we will give it consideration, but I am unsurprised by the point-of-view they've expressed.
Journalist: Mr Bowen, two people now are in hospital on Nauru through hunger strike, they're said to be in a very serious condition. If one of them were to die, would Australia bear any responsibility?
Bowen: Well of course, we provide all the necessary care and support to people in a difficult situation. But as I've said to you, hundreds, thousands of people have died by boat getting to Australia. There is a moral obligation to do something about that; that is what we're doing.
Journalist: That's not a consequence of Australia's actions though. What if these two –
Bowen: We have the capacity – we have the capacity to deal with that problem and that is what we're doing. Now people protest on Nauru, just as people protest in Australia. Some people choose to protest by way of voluntary starvation. Of course, I would say that is not the right way to do it, you are hurting yourself. But we, as you've said, there have been some people who've been hospitalised in Nauru, we facilitate all the appropriate care and support to make sure that they receive every potential support that they can.
Journalist: Just again on the 'no advantage' principle, as I understand it, you will be effectively releasing thousands of asylum seekers into the community under this new program. They'll be on bridging visas with no work rights, they'll have no clarity or certainty about their future, it could be five years in the community and they could still be transferred to Nauru at any single time. Are you concerned that you're creating a sort of an underclass of asylum seekers in the city without the means to support themselves? My first question. My second question is have you given the states a heads up on this, because it's been an issue they have raise previously?
Bowen: No, in relation to your first question, I believe the support that is provided through the Asylum Seeker Support Scheme and the CAS scheme is appropriate. It's not generous, but it's appropriate.
We will engage with the states. Obviously, bridging visas have been in place now for a long time. There's actually, I must say, a good process in place with the states through the ministerial council. Yes, there are issues that they raise from time to time. The Commonwealth Government provides the support here and the care. Yes, we talk to state governments. I provide them with updates and figures about how many people have been released, where they're living, what local government areas, for example, is provided regularly to them, and that will continue.
Journalist: On Syria, and the number of refugees coming from Syria, I think you announced recently an increase in the numbers –
Journalist: Have those people stopped arriving? What sorts of numbers are we talking about and when will we see the end of that window, as it were?
Bowen: So I announced an increase in the allocation for those affected by the Syrian crisis of 1000. Last year, we resettled about 700 people so that's an increase of another 1000, so it would get much closer to 2000.
Yes, processing has commenced, of claims for people affected by the Syrian crisis; whether they be in Lebanon or Jordan or in some instances, we are talking about people in Syria itself. That is well underway. A substantial number of interviews have occurred, and people are being processed, and that allocation is for a 12 month period. Obviously it takes a while to ramp up and you'll see most of the visas issued in the second half of the financial year just by the nature of how these things work, but the progress is well underway.
Journalist: I'm not the only media person to have asked to visit the camp on Nauru and we've all been turned down. Is that going to change at any time? Are you going to let people see the conditionsrather than just NGOs?
Bowen: As I say, we've facilitated the access – with Nauru, it's Nauru's sovereign territory – of non-governmental organisations. We'll continue to consider with Nauru how to handle requests for access. But we've taken quite a different approach to that taken last time that Nauru was open -
Journalist: The Nauruans say it's not an issue.
Bowen: - Where journalists could not even get visas to go to Nauru at all, very regularly. That's not the approach that's been taken by the Nauruan Government.
Journalist: What is the capacity on Nauru and PNG?
Bowen: Well, in relation to Nauru, the capacity is currently 500 and we have about 387 people there, I think, at the moment.
Journalist: The projected capacity is 1500 is that correct?
Journalist: So when will you hit your maximum capacity?
Bowen: Well I'll be providing further updates in relation to the construction. I've announced the signing of contracts but obviously with any building project there's always a range of things which can impact on the timeline, so I'm not providing a timeline today.
Journalist: There must be estimates. I appreciate that there are variables but there must be an estimate.
Bowen: Well the work is, obviously, a priority for both the Nauruan and Australian Government, to try to get the permanent facility up and running as soon as possible but I'll be providing further updates.
Journalist: Who will be processing people on Manus Island? And is it likely that families going there today will be there for 5 years?
Bowen: In relation to processing, it will be done under Papua New Guinea law, with similar arrangements that we put in place in Nauru. I've already answered your question in relation to five years.
Journalist: There's been almost 8000 arrivals since the new offshore processing regime began in August. You've announced today that you're going to open two new detention centres. I wonder if you can comment on the efficacy of the scheme: is it working? Senator Carr believes it is.
Bowen: Well, obviously we have a good deal of work to do to make sure that this is communicated, not only through our region but through source countries. We're doing that in Sri Lanka. We're doing that in Afghanistan and Iran. We are making sure that the message is getting out there but we're up against people smugglers who tell lies, who dissemble, and who say 'look don't worry, even if you get sent to Nauru you'll be there for a short period of time' or 'the Nauru facility is going to be closed in six months' time' – very clearly lies. And as we're seeing in Sri Lanka, 'there's great economic opportunities available if you go to Australia by boat'.
So we'll continue to communicate. I do believe, obviously, we've seen some stabilisation or reduction in the relation to the numbers coming from Afghanistan and some other countries. We've seen a big increase in people coming from Sri Lanka because, I think, those other factors are at play. So we continue to have a good deal of work to do to make sure that people who are considering making this dangerous boat journey know the full facts – the full facts – of Australia's new policy.
Last couple of questions? Last couple of questions. Mr Maley. I've asked Mr Maley, thank you.
Journalist: Just following on from that question, just to be clear: when can we start to see, when can the public expect to see, a reduction in boat arrivals? Because since you announced these measures, the trend has been the opposite.
Bowen: Well, as I said, we've seen a big increase in people arriving from Sri Lanka, that is true. We haven't seen that for some of the other countries; the obvious source countries for migration to Australia.
I'm not in the business of predicting. I'm not the one who said – remember Paul – 'just pick up the phone to the President of Nauru and all our problems will go away'. I've always pointed out these are complex problems and there is no simple one answer.
We are implementing all the recommendations of the Panel and making the announcements I've made today. I believe, obviously, that is the right thing to do to minimise the number of boats coming to Australia but I am not going to pretend – as I never have done, as I never have done, others have done – that this is a simple problem that's easily fixed.
Journalist: Are you still confident though – simple, complex or whatever – that ultimately these measures will be able to result in reductions?
Bowen: I believe that the implementation of these measures will obviously impact on the decisions of people to come to Australia by boat, yes I do.
Journalist: Have you had any progress securing regional cooperation with Malaysia?
Bowen: We've been in discussion with the Malaysian Government, of course we have, because the Independent Panel strongly recommended that the be processed and proceeded with because when you look at what has worked in relation to this policy, the thing that had the biggest impact, of course, was the announcement of the Malaysia agreement in the first place. We saw arrivals fall after that.
But of course, as I've said before, the key question, the key question is: if the Government were to put Malaysia to the Parliament as a regional processing country – as we're obliged to do under the Act – if we intend to proceed with it, would it get through the Parliament? Based on the positions of the Greens Party and the Liberal Party, that does not appear to be the case. That is the fundamental question that needs to be answered.
Journalist: Is it likely that you will have to further expand Australia's detention network beyond what you've announced?
Bowen: I don't have any plans to do that. The announcements I've made today are the announcements I've made today.
Bowen: Well of course we've also got the processing people in the community under the 'no advantage' principle.
Journalist: Just on that point, there's no expansion of the domestic network but you've only got 2100 places offshore. Do you envisage an expansion of the offshore network?
Bowen: I'm not making any plans or announcements today. What we're doing is focussing on the places that we have negotiated with Nauru and with Papua New Guinea.
Journalist: You say the number is going to fall. Why aren't you getting the message across?
Bowen: Well, I just said that I believe that the measures that we're putting in place will impact on people's decisions to travel by boat. I've also said that we are dealing with people smugglers who are lying and we're dealing with vulnerable people who, obviously, want to hear that there is a future for them in Australia if they come by boat. They want to believe what they're being told; they're in a very difficult circumstance.
But what we need to do is show – by the implementation of these policies and the continued resolve of the government – that we're not closing Nauru in six months, as some people smugglers are spreading through the region; that we are taking people to Manus Island; that we are returning people who are clearly economic migrants to Sri Lanka.
That does take time, obviously, to communicate but I believe there's no alternative obviously but to continue with that program.
Okay guys, thank you very much.
See: Index of Speeches
Last update: Thursday, 22 November 2012 at 09:37 AEST