What does Gillard need a new “processing centre” for anyway? The U.N. has said Sri Lanka is no longer a refugee concern so she could put all the Tamils on the next plane back
PAPUA New Guinea yesterday joined the East Timor Parliament in saying “no” to Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s asylum seeker “solution”, leaving a key plank of the Labor Government’s re-election campaign in tatters.
Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith had on Thursday briefed his PNG counterpart on the plan, under which asylum seekers bound for Australia would have been processed at Manus Island detention centre.
Betha Somare, the spokeswoman for PNG Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare, said the PNG Government had closed down the centre and considered the matter ended.
“Our official position has been that the asylum seekers issue is an internal Australian problem,” Ms Somare said.
East Timor’s Parliament has resoundingly rejected Ms Gillard’s plans to process asylum seekers there.
The setback comes amid reports that the number of people smugglers caught bringing asylum seekers to Australian shores has risen to such a level that they are now being farmed out to the states to hold.
The Daily Telegraph has been told that Queensland has been forced to take 10 traffickers while NSW’s jails will take 40 over the next five weeks.
A NSW government source said the states’ prisons were needed because with the growing number of asylum seekers came the traffickers paid to bring them illegally to Australia.
The Federal Government had at least 120 people smugglers in its care, the source said.
Mr Smith briefed PNG Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Abal of his Government’s hopes to create a regional processing centre while attending a prescheduled meeting in Milne Bay.
Ms Somare said Mr Abal would need to discuss any PNG solution with cabinet. “It will depend on when Foreign Affairs brings that forward in a submission to cabinet,” she said.
Other countries in the region which are signatories to the UN Convention of Refugees are New Zealand, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu.
If PNG did not show any interest, the only options after East Timor are the Solomons and Tuvalu.
Mr Smith said it was a general conversation and he had not made a request to use PNG for a facility or discussed the reopening of the Manus detention centre. “I have not sought from Sam any indication about any particular location,” Mr Smith told reporters.
Ms Gillard’s proposal for an East Timorese processing centre was rejected by its parliament on Wednesday amid claims she had been wrong to brief President Jose Ramos Horta rather than the man with true power, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.
On Thursday Ms Gillard backed down from claims she was seeking a Timor Solution but yesterday she maintained that the East Timor option was still open to her Government. “We’re focused on a dialogue with East Timor, I couldn’t be any clearer about that,” she said yesterday. “Let’s be very clear, we are in dialogue with East Timor . . . we are now pursuing that dialogue in circumstances where the President of East Timor and Prime Minister said they are open to that dialogue.”
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said Ms Gillard was being inconsistent. “She’s now mentioned PNG, and she’s still talking to East Timor,” he said. “No one really knows what’s going on because it’s changing as they desperately try to backfill for the domestic political debate.”
Ms Gillard indicated she would not rule out using Manus Island, which belongs to PNG and became notorious under John Howard’s Pacific Solution. Port Moresby radio was yesterday reporting that Manus Islanders were interested in offering their island to Australia.
But Sir Michael’s Government inherited and then shut the Manus facility – now completely dismantled – from the previous Morauta Government, which had struck a deal with John Howard.
The Opposition said Ms Gillard’s hopes of getting neighbours to participate in the creation of the facility would take years.