Turn­bull avoids sit-down meet­ing with Jacinda Ardern on refugee of­fer

The Guardian Australia - - News - Oliver Holmes in Manila

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.

Pho­to­graph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Jacinda Ardern and Mal­colm Turn­bull in Viet­nam. It ap­pears they did not meet for ‘sub­stan­tive’ talks in Manila.

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