A leading Catholic has a solution for Australia’s Manus Island refugee problem

A barge carrying rescued suspected asylum seekers. Photo: Getty Images

The fate of 850 refugees and asylum seekers in the Manus Island detention centre is unclear after Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the offshore processing facility set up by Australia breached the nation’s constitution and was illegal.

The following day PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill announced he planned to close the centre and would try and negotiate with Australia, which set up the refugee assessment camp to deal with asylum seekers arriving by boat.

Now one of the most vexed and complex issues in Australian politics over the last 15 years looks set to flare up again as Malcolm Turnbull prepares to head to the polls on July 2, with immigration minister Peter Dutton adamant that none of the men – despite more than half of them being assessed as genuine refugees – will be allowed to resettle in Australia.

Dutton has been keen to portray the issue as a PNG problem that has little to do with Australia.

The political imperatives to maintain strong border protection potentially collide with Australia’s international obligations.

This morning Dutton appeared to be caught out by the Today Show’s Karl Stefanovic over how to deal with the issue after saying the government knew the Supreme Court’s decision was coming and they’ve been planning for this since late 2015.

Stefanovic appeared both surprised and alarmed by the revelation, saying “you’ve said that you’ve known for months this was coming and made the announcement yesterday that you had no road map. It doesn’t say much about your planning does it, doesn’t say much about [the prime minister’s] planning”.

The exchange did not play out well:

STEFANOVIC: You’ve known for months this ruling was coming and yesterday [Malcolme Turnbull] said we have no road map. How long does it take the Prime Minister does to come up with a road map?

DUTTON: Well the Prime Minister’s has been part of these discussions for a long period of time.

STEFANOVIC: And how long does it take you to come up with a road map, if you’ve known for months?

The potential for a stalemate between Australia and its northern neighbour now looms, with some of the refugees who’ve settled in PNG preferring to return to the detention centre, while just two others took up the Australian government’s Cambodia option.

Today Malcolm Turnbull reiterated that Australia will take none of the refugees and attempted to blame Labor for the dilemma his government now faces.

“I look forward to discussions with the PNG Government, but there will be no transfer of those individuals to Australia. Because to do that would send a signal to the people smugglers to get back into business, and that is utterly unacceptable,” the prime minister said.

While there have been suggestions that New Zealand, whose previous offers to take anyone assessed to be a refugee were rebuffed by Australia, may now be a solution, but how to deal with the issue in the two months before the expected election, when the government moves into caretaker mode and is expected to consult with the Labor opposition on any decisions, makes any move fraught.

Former senior public servant and diplomat John Menadue canvassed the options on his blog today with help from two leading Australian thinkers – Peter Hughes, the former immigration deputy secretary who negotiated Labor’s aborted Malaysia deal, and Father Frank Brennan, the Jesuit priest, human rights lawyer and academic.

Fr Brennan says the issue is now a race against time and before the Turnbull government goes into caretaker mode, it should move the asylum seekers to Christmas Island for processing, also guaranteeing that any outstanding claims be determined within 12 months, with resettlement by November 2017.

“For many of these people, that will have meant a five year delay between initial detention and resettlement,” he says.

Fr Brennan says Labor should offer bipartisan support for the plan, but his idea comes with a sting.

“If resettlement places cannot be provided for any proven refugees in this cohort by 12 November 2017, there will be no option but to resettle them in Australia,” he concludes.

Peter Hughes says the only realistic options for resettlement are Australia and New Zealand, because the existing options haven’t worked and no other alternatives have been found.

“If there was somewhere else ‘acceptable’, it would have been found by now and the refugees would have moved there. Regional countries will be wary of helping out, given the propensity of Australians to drag them into our domestic disputes and make them the target of criticism for getting involved,” Hughes argues.

“The pressures of asylum seeker and refugee populations faced by many countries around the world mean that the price that Australia would have to pay (in whatever form) for any country taking even small numbers would be very high.

Anyone assessed as not being a genuine refugee should be returned immediately to their country of origin, he says.

He points to history and what happened after the Howard government opened the Manus facility in 2001. It closed in 2004, then was reopened by Labor in 2012.

“Despite the rhetoric, the use of PNG and Nauru offshore processing centres was only ever a short-term option,” Hughes says.

“The first time the Howard government did it, it was intended to last for only six months – events were to prove that this timeline was wildly optimistic. After voluntary returns to countries of origin had faded away and third country options became untenable except for a handful, Australia had to take the bulk of the refugees with New Zealand’s assistance.”

He takes a swipe at the Coalition and Greens for the current predicament pointing out they “conspired” Labor’s Malaysia deal, which allow asylum seekers to live freely in the community, while their refugee status was determined.

“Whoever is in government at the end of July is going to have to fix this problem. Both parties just might have to cooperate to find a sensible way out,” he says.

Despite the Turnbull government’s current position, Hughes argues the only question is “the formula by which the people in PNG and Nauru are brought to Australia (and perhaps New Zealand)”.

He concludes:

There are different ways this can be done, even if it involves only bringing people to Australia temporarily, at least initially.

Creative thinking is needed within government on how this can be done and how it can be explained, given the entrenched positions taken so far.

Of course there are collateral risks to the government’s broader border management strategy, but delaying the inevitable won’t make it easier to manage them.

You can read the views of both men here.