Turnbull avoids sit-down meeting with Jacinda Ardern on refugee offer
Malcolm Turnbull appears to have ignored a public request by New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern to have a “substantive” discussion on her offer to resettle 150 refugees from Manus Island.
Ardern had said she planned to sit down with her Australian counterpart during the east Asia summit in the Philippines.
But it appeared that no such meeting had been held in Manila, leading to New Zealand media reporting that she had been snubbed.
Asked by reporters on Tuesday nightif she had met Turnbull she said: “Not since I saw him in passing but our officials have been talking together.”
Pressed if that was the more substantive discussion she had called for two days before, she replied, “no, not necessarily”.
“Both of us are busy, involved in the summit and other bilaterals,” she said. “I think we’re splitting hairs a little bit of whether it needs to be formally sitting down or over a cup of tea in a waiting room ... You’d be surprised what I can do over a cup of tea.”
Ardern’s press secretary Mike Jaspers said she had not been ignored and that the two leaders had “a series of discussions which together have been substantive”.
Turnbull’s office was contacted for comment.
Turnbull was asked in Manila on Tuesday about the refugee resettlement and said “as you know, the prime minister of New Zealand and I have had discussions about that”.
New Zealand has a long-standing offer to take 150 refugees a year from Australian-run offshore detention centres, a deal Canberra has repeatedly rejected.
Australia claims agreeing would provide a “back door” route via New Zealand for people to get to Australia and Turnbull has said it would be “a marketing opportunity” for people smugglers.
Ardern also played down suggestions that her offer had restarted “chatter” among people smugglers about targeting New Zealand as a “soft touch” for their operations.
“I’ve been given no indication that that chatter ever stopped. We know it has been an ongoing issue,” she said.
Ardern, 37, who became prime minister less than a month ago, pushed the issue during a visit to Sydney but Turnbull again rebuffed the offer.
He said the government would consider the deal once it had completed a transfer of refugees to the US, which has agreed to take up to 1,250 refugees from Manus, Papua New Guinea, and Nauru.
However, only 52 refugees to be accepted for resettlement have left the Pacific island camps. The US president, Donald Trump, has lashed the deal made by Barack Obama as “dumb” and complained in a phone call to Turnbull that it would “make me look terrible”.
More than 400 refugees and asylum seekers have locked themselves in an abandoned detention centre on Manus after the Papua New Guinea government closed the facility last month. They are living without without power or medical aid but say they fear for their safety if they were to leave.
Amnesty International reports 90 men are now sick and the UN’s refugee agency says the situation inside the centre is a “humanitarian emergency”. The agency has urged both PNG and Australia to end the “unconscionable human suffering”.
Ardern said her offer was made “because we saw a great need. No matter what label you put on it there is absolute need and there is harm being done.
“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.”
The United Nations refugee agency on Tuesday urged Australia to accept New Zealand’s offer. “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. The new Labour government pledged to double that number in the next three years.
Refugee advocates in New Zealand have urged her new Labour government to bypass talks with Australia. They say she could make an offer directly with PNG authorities.
Jacinda Ardern and Malcolm Turnbull in Vietnam. It appears they did not meet for ‘substantive’ talks in Manila.