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Transcript of interview with Lyndal Curtis: ABC News 24: 30 April 2013: regional processing centres

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LYNDAL CURTIS: Brendan O’Connor welcome to ABC News 24. If we could start with something your Opposition counterpart Scott Morrison has been saying this morning, is the Government considering or has it decided to bring women and children back to Australia from the offshore processing centres in Manus Island and Nauru?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well we’ve made no decision and primarily these are operational decisions made by the Department, as you know…

LYNDAL CURTIS: Is it under consideration?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: As I say, we’ve made no decision on this. I haven’t been contemplating a change to the composition of those on Manus Province because we made a decision, a difficult decision, to ensure that we deter people getting on very unseaworthy vessels. I have to weigh up how we look after people in centres, including in processing centres, against the backdrop of seeing maritime fatalities. And it’s been advised, that is the Government has been advised by the expert panel, that we need to put in place a deterrent. And of course one of the deterrents is ensuring that people cannot, that is people smugglers cannot say that if you get on our vessels then you’ll be in Australia. That has led to hundreds and hundreds of people dying at sea. It’s happened now it’s happened in 2001 as well.

LYNDAL CURTIS: So it’s not currently being considered, bringing women and children back?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: We’ve actually returned - we’ve actually had people come from Manus Province including women and children when there’s been a need to. The composition will not change on Manus Province, because if we were to do that we will see an increase of the composition of people getting on unseaworthy vessels and we will see, therefore more likely an increase in fatalities of children and women.

LYNDAL CURTIS: And the same for Nauru?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: The same for both processing centres. In Nauru’s case, currently the facility is for single adult males, but remembering we are continuing to finish the permanent facility and that will also have a mix. It’s important to have a mix so that people do not lure women and children on vessels on the basis that it is easier for them to go that way than access

the actual places that we’ve got, and have in fact increased, so that people can come in a safer way if they are to be settled because they are a refugee.

LYNDAL CURTIS: What obligations then does Australia have to provide decent living conditions for those asylum seekers transferred offshore, because we heard last night on 4 Corners from a doctor who worked at Manus Island late last year saying it was a disaster medically, basic supplies including oxygen, antibiotics, anaesthetics, sedatives and morphine didn’t arrive.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: I don’t accept the premise of the assertions made by the person in question who in fact has not worked there for some time. And some of the allegations or assertions he made are just completely wrong. There’s no doubt when we were setting up the temporary facility things had to be improved. And what I can say now - and I was there some while ago - there have been improvements to the medical provisions, to the facilities there generally, to the recreational activities. The providers we have there that are specialists in undertaking care for children, we have health specialists, mental health specialists, we have very good providers. And can I say in relation to transferring anybody to a processing centre, there is a pre-screening. We would not send people to a processing centre in Manus Province without being screened by medical practitioners. Now, I’m happy to take on board criticism or concerns and look at those issues. We have responded to concerns for example by the Human Rights Commission, the UNHCR report and we’ve responded to concerns that have been raised by my own department.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Because the doctor did last night point out a case of a couple of children, one with anaphylactic problems, one with blood problems, and he said the remoteness of Manus in a potential problem because he said children get sick very quickly and there can be a 24 hour delay between calling for a medical evacuation by air and the plane arriving.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: We’re very, very conscious of that, that’s why there is a pre-screening so that we would not transfer anybody, particularly children, without a pre-screening. And secondly, in relation to some of the assertions he made, there is no record of a child that’s had or needed blood transfusions. There is no record of some of the other assertions he’s made. We had an issue about a child who may have had an allergy to a food, that was investigated.

There is no person that hasn’t been, in my view, particularly children, that hasn’t been properly dealt with by medical staff there. And before we would even transfer people we would make sure that they were able to be placed there. Now I’m not pretending this is an easy decision, it’s a very difficult decision. But this is off the back of recommendations by three eminent Australians, Angus Houston, Michael L’Estrange and Paris Aristotle who said we need to find a way to break the cycle that allows people smugglers to lure children onto vessels.

LYNDAL CURTIS: But are you confident that you are sending them to a place where conditions are, whether they be medical, whether they be conditions in terms of recreational facilities, living conditions, are adequate?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: I’ve described them as adequate and I’m not pretending that it’s a five star amenity, but I have said that we need to ensure that firstly we have decent amenities, we have decent food, we have the appropriately skilled staff, both in terms of providing education to children, providing a decent health standard for children, we have very capable professional Australian staff dealing with their general needs.

Can I say when I went there I of course examined the issues and I spoke to all the providers - all of the providers that undertake different types of care for the men, women and children in the centre. And when I spoke directly to the clients, those that are transferees, through translators because many wouldn’t be able to speak English, for over one hour, on not one occasion did they raise issues of amenities. Their biggest concern, and quite understandably so, was when would their matters be processed. And that’s why I’ve been engaging with the PNG government to make sure they are processed quickly, as quickly as can be done, so they can know their fate. One of the biggest problems they’ve had is feeling a sense of an indefinite situation.

LYNDAL CURTIS: In fact it’s not just the people who spoke to 4 Corners, but it’s your own department raising problems in its own submission to a parliamentary enquiry. The department said, talking about Manus Island, there was no reliable power supply, limited drinking water, unsafe power in wet conditions, the site was in a swampy area, there are limited recreational facilities and boredom which led to a focus on the progress of refugee determination.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: And that report is three months old, and the Secretary of the department has written to the Chair of the Public Works Committee to explain what has been done to attend to those things. And the fact that the department had, quite rightly, identified issues that need to be addressed, have been addressed as contained in the letter of the Secretary of the department to the Chair of the Public Works Committee shows that we have responded to that and we should respond to that.

LYNDAL CURTIS: If you have responded to that and you believe the facilities are adequate now will you allow the Human Right Commission president Gillian Triggs to visit?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Well we’ve never precluded anybody, and just by way of explaining who is invited, firstly we do have to get the consent of the PNG government. It’s not Australian sovereignty. But of course UNHCR has visited and have remarked upon the centre. Red Cross has visited. We have very significant bodies who have very good reputations examining the centres. And the only issue that there’s been in relation to the Human Rights Commissioner has been a jurisdictional one, not one I would determine. But I have no problem whatsoever in the Commissioner visiting. It’s not an issue for me to make that decision as to whether she has jurisdiction over that centre. Her jurisdiction is primarily that within Australia.

LYNDAL CURTIS: One final question, is there any evidence, any evidence at all, that offshore processing is providing any deterrence to asylum seekers?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: That has been the constant and consistent advice from our agencies. It was the advice of the expert panel, and we have…

LYNDAL CURTIS: But the expert panel was before this policy was implemented. Is there evidence in the policy being implemented that people are not getting on boats because they might be processed offshore?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR: That is the advice. Clearly it hasn’t deterred sufficiently because we have not implemented the recommendations. We’ve been stymied by the Greens and the Coalition in preventing all of the recommendations being realised. But the advice I had when I was Home Affairs Minister and the advice I continue to receive now is if we do not put in deterrents including having a processing centre, but it can’t be done alone, then if we don’t do that we’ll see more people seek to get on these unseaworthy vessels on perilous journeys that lead unfortunately on many occasions to deaths at sea.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Brendan O’Connor thank you very much for your time.