On the fourth anniversary of the Rudd government’s decision not to settle asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat, former prime minister Kevin Rudd has said the original agreement with Papua New Guinea to take and detain asylum seekers at the Manus Island offshore detention network was only for one year. However, the original document actually left it open for the years-long detention of men on the island.
On July 19, 2013, shortly after returning to the prime ministership, Rudd signed an agreement with Papua New Guinea that would set in motion the offshore detention regime still in operation today. At the time, Rudd said very clearly that “asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia”.
In an alternative reality where the Rudd government was re-elected, the former prime minister now suggests that the boats would have stopped and asylum seekers would have been processed and resettled in places including Australia.
This week Rudd said he was “a little tired” of taking the blame for this initial 12-month agreement having been extended in perpetuity by the Abbott and Turnbull governments and not implemented as he envisioned.
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“These poor folk should have been settled in New Zealand, or Australia, or elsewhere three years ago. The cases could be easily assessed within a 12-month period,” he told ABC RN Breakfast this morning.
The agreement would have been stopped after 12 months if PNG had not been meeting its obligations under the Refugee Convention, Rudd says.
The agreement in question does state that it will be in place for 12 months from July 2013, but the agreement left it open to be continued beyond the initial 12-month period because it was “subject to review on an annual basis”. Rudd has argued that through that annual review process, the government should have ensured that conditions and treatment on Manus Island satisfied the Refugee Convention and terminated the agreement if they did not, resettling the asylum seekers in Australia and elsewhere. It wasn’t ever made clear at the time of the announcement that Australian resettlement was an option after one year.
Several United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports on Manus Island based on visits to the detention centre since June 2013 have said that the conditions in the detention centre do not meet international standards for the treatment of asylum seekers.
As of the end of May this year, there are still 370 people (including 48 women and 43 children) in the Nauru detention centre, and 816 men in the Manus Island detention centre. As of May, 722 men on Manus Island have been found to be refugees, with all but 27 still in PNG (15 were listed by the department as no longer being in PNG, while 12 were in Australia for medical treatment). The government said 233 men had failed in their applications for asylum, and 32 voluntarily returned to their country of origin, while six were involuntarily returned to their country of origin.
The Department of Immigration and Border Protection told a Senate estimates committee this month that the total cost of running the two offshore detention centres since 2012 has been $4.89 billion.
There are 21 asylum seekers currently living in the community in PNG, mostly from Iran or Bangladesh. The government is aiming to get the remaining asylum seekers off Manus to close the facility in October as part of the resettlement agreement with the United States. The deal has been delayed until October because the United States has reached its cap on accepting refugees for the year, and this will not reset until after September.
In a Human Rights Law Centre report this week marking the fourth anniversary of Rudd’s PNG policy, several asylum seekers have told their harrowing tales of being locked up in offshore detention for the past four years. Naseem, an asylum seeker from Pakistan who has been in Manus since 2013, compared his treatment to that faced under the Taliban:
“From the beginning, they have tried to break us. When the Taliban tell you they will kill you — you know you are going to die. But here in this centre, you just wait with no hope, and get told to go back home.”