Manus Is­land: New Zealand urged to by­pass Aus­tralia to re­solve refugee cri­sis

The Guardian Australia - - News - Eleanor Ainge Roy in Dunedin

Refugee ad­vo­cates in New Zealand and be­yond are urg­ing the new Labour gov­ern­ment to by­pass talks with Aus­tralia to re­solve the es­ca­lat­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis on Manus Is­land.

Prime min­is­ter Jacinda Ardern has of­fered to take 150 of the 400 refugees and asy­lum seek­ers who have bar­ri­caded them­selves in an aban­doned de­ten­tion cen­tre on Manus Is­land in Pa­pua New Guinea. The men are liv­ing in squalor with­out power, san­i­ta­tion fa­cil­i­ties or med­i­cal treat­ment, but say they fear for their safety in PNG if they were to leave.

One week ago Aus­tralian prime min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull re­fused New Zealand’s of­fer, and the sit­u­a­tion con­tin­ues to de­te­ri­o­rate, with Amnesty In­ter­na­tional re­port­ing 90 men are now sick.

Ardern said she in­tended to press Turn­bull to ac­cept New Zealand’s of­fer this week at their meet­ing in Manila, as di­rect talks with Aus­tralia were the “fastest route” to re­solve the cri­sis.

“We made the of­fer be­cause we saw a great need. No mat­ter what la­bel you put on it there is ab­so­lute need and there is harm be­ing done,” Ardern said at the week­end at the Apec sum­mit in Viet­nam.

“I see the hu­man face of this and I see the need and the role New Zealand needs to play. I think it’s clear that we don’t see what’s hap­pen­ing there as ac­cept­able, that’s why the of­fer’s there.”

By Tues­day, the two lead­ers had not held for­mal talks on the is­sue.

Pa­pua New Guinea MP Char­lie Ben­jamin told Ra­dio New Zealand that the New Zealand gov­ern­ment should by­pass Aus­tralia and dis­cuss its of­fer di­rectly with the PNG gov­ern­ment and the UN, a sug­ges­tion refugee ad­vo­cates in New Zealand are also push­ing for.

Arif Saeid from the Refugee Coun­cil for New Zealand said Ardern had the “free­dom” to by­pass the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment and a hu­man­i­tar­ian obli­ga­tion to do so.

“New Zealand is one of the sig­na­to­ries for the UN refugee con­ven­tion and if Aus­tralia does not ac­cept New Zealand’s of­fer, then New Zealand can and should go straight to PNG,” said Saeid.

“The sit­u­a­tion is get­ting worse day by day on Manus Is­land. Be­fore any­thing hor­ri­ble hap­pens, New Zealand has to in­ter­vene.”

Saeid said New Zealand should also se­ri­ously con­sider of­fer­ing asy­lum to all 600 men from Manus Is­land, as the men’s wel­fare was in im­me­di­ate jeop­ardy.

Michele Cox, the CEO of Asy­lum Seek­ers Sup­port Trust in Auck­land, said if Aus­tralia did not ac­cept New Zealand’s of­fer within the next few days, it was time for the gov­ern­ment to press ahead re­gard­less.

“We are a wealthy coun­try, we can find that sup­port if we re­ally need to and this is a cri­sis, so it would be good to see New Zealand step in and show its hu­man­i­tar­ian colours.

“I think the NZ gov­ern­ment has made all the right noises. It is a very quick test of whether they are pre­pared to put their money where their mouth is. I have hope that they will do more.”

Greens MP Gol­riz Ghahra­man, her­self a for­mer refugee and hu­man rights lawyer for the UN, said Aus­tralia ap­peared to be “stalling” over mak­ing a de­ci­sion re­gard­ing the Manus refugees and was us­ing “de­lay tac­tics” to wait for me­dia at­ten­tion to sub­side so the men could be forcibly re­moved from the fa­cil­ity. She joined calls for New Zealand to take the men.

“The in­di­ca­tion from the Man­gere Refugee Cen­tre [in Auck­land] is that they can take 150 to 194 in an or­di­nary in­take, and they can take 250 with bunk­ing. So they can take 250, we have the re­sources for that.”

Aus­tralian NGOs had of­fered to fly to New Zealand and pro­vide “wrap­around” ser­vices for Manus Is­land refugees, said Ghahra­man, if New Zealand took the full 600.

Ghara­man said to the best of her knowl­edge the gov­ern­ment was cur­rently ne­go­ti­at­ing only with Aus­tralia, al­though the NZ Her­ald re­ported see­ing for­eign af­fairs min­is­ter Win­ston Peters hold­ing pri­vate talks with the Pa­pua New Guinea prime min­is­ter, Peter O’Neill, at the Apec sum­mit.

“The best op­tion ovbi­ously would be if Aus­tralia stops selling off its hu­man rights obli­ga­tions in the Pa­cific, closed the camps and just pro­cessed these peo­ple as refugees, as it has an obli­ga­tion to do,” said Ghara­man.

The United Na­tions refugee agency on Tues­day urged Aus­tralia to ac­cept New Zealand’s of­fer to re­set­tle 150 refugees. “We urge Aus­tralia to re­con­sider this and take up the of­fer,” Nai Jit Lam, deputy re­gional rep­re­sen­ta­tive at the UNHCR said.

New Zealand cur­rently ac­cepts 750 refugees ev­ery year, with the new Labour gov­ern­ment pledg­ing to dou­ble that num­ber in the next three years.

The New Zealand Red Cross, which helps process and in­te­grate asy­lum seek­ers, said it was ready and pre­pared to ac­cept the Manus Is­land refugees.

A protest inside the Manus Is­land de­ten­tion cen­tre in Pa­pua New Guinea. Pho­to­graph: Reuters

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