The Australian government has no answers on what will be done with 850 asylum seekers it has illegally detained on Manus Island.
The PNG government ordered the closure of the Australian-run offshore refugee detention facility on Wednesday, following the ruling of the PNG Supreme Court that it was unconstitutional.
Despite numerous approaches by The New Daily to the Department of Immigration on Thursday, government representatives were unable to provide answers to even simple questions on what the government planned to do with the island’s detainees.
• Nauru has room for 850 men: Dutton
• PNG to shut Manus Island detention centre
• Detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island ruled illegal
• Asylum seeker’s death blamed on ‘pathetic’ Manus Island blunder
The refusal to comment came late on Thursday despite earlier assurances the department was committed to discussing the issue.
The department’s silence followed Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s embarrassing appearance on breakfast television earlier in the day, where he admitted the government had been anticipating the decision for months.
“Gee I tell you what, when the Prime Minister finds out you’ve said that you’ve known for months … and made the announcement yesterday that you had no road map – it doesn’t say much about your planning,” The Today Show host Karl Stefanovic replied.
Watch the exchange below:
— The Today Show (@TheTodayShow) April 27, 2016
Later on Thursday night, Mr Dutton told the ABC’s 7.30 that Papua New Guinea was ultimately responsible for the asylum seekers and refugees. He ruled out sending the detainees to Christmas Island, and agreed when questioned that there was room for them on Nauru, but failed to clarify what would happen to the men.
PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill said on Wednesday his government would “immediately ask the Australian government to make alternative arrangements for the asylum seekers”. Mr O’Neill invited any detainees who were granted refugee status to settle permanently in PNG.
Australian authorities maintained the asylum seekers would never be permanently settled in Australia, but refugee experts told The New Daily that, at least in the short-term, they may have little choice.
“Australia has a choice to make, but whatever happens now, the immediate next steps are primarily in the hands of the PNG government,” Kaldor Centre research associate Madeline Gleeson said.
“At least in the short-term, the only reasonable option is for Australia to bring them back here.”
Australia was the only “logical place” the men should be sent, Refugee Legal Centre executive director David Manne said.
He added the court ruling could be damaging for the Australian government.
“I don’t think there is any doubt there has been very serious concerns … about Australia’s conduct in essentially subcontracting PNG to indefinitely detain and engage in human warehousing of people who sought safety in Australia,” Mr Manne said.
“Australia’s attempts to export its detention policy and the damaging consequences has failed in PNG.”
‘Not a single success story’
Another option is to open the gates of the Manus Island centre, similar to Nauru, where refugees are able to roam freely while still living within the compound, Kaldor Centre’s Madeline Gleeson said.
But it would be complicated by security on the island, which was also a naval base, she said.
An alternative was moving the detainees to a transit facility closer to Lorengau.
“The problem with this option is that the vast majority of men found to be refugees have been staunchly resisting a move to that facility since last year,” Ms Gleeson said.
“It is telling that there is not a single success story in all these years … of someone who has settled in the PNG community, who has made a home for themselves, is self-sufficient and has rebuilt their life.”
A transfer to Christmas Island was a possibility, although it would depend on capacity requirements.
The PNG government did not respond to a request for comment.