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Transcript of press conference: Sydney: 23 August 2013: asylum seeker policy; implementation update; interviews with Iranian transferees at Manus Island



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TRANSCRIPT OF MINISTER TONY BURKE PRESS CONFERENCE SYDNEY 22 AUGUST 2013

E & O E - PROOF ONLY _____________________________________________________________

Subjects: Asylum seeker policy; Implementation update; Interviews with Iranian transferees at Manus Island. _____________________________________________________________

TONY BURKE: Okay thanks everybody for coming along. A couple of very brief points of update first of all before I cross to a specific video that I want people to be able to see.

In the first instance, another plane landed on Manus Island this morning, once again containing single adult males. A further individual has now left Christmas Island on his way back home, and once again that is another Iranian who has made the decision to return home, and the other piece of update I wanted to give is some people asked yesterday about education, services for the children who have been sent within family groups to Nauru.

I just wanted to provide a little bit of extra detail on that, which is that in the first instance it will be Save the Children that is providing education, given that many of the children themselves at this stage don’t have skills in either English or the Nauruan language. Those language skills will be provided to them as part of the education and tuition that they give with the intention that over time they are integrated into the Nauruan education system.

When I was last on Manus Island, a member of the Department of Immigration accompanied me over there but stayed after I left. He then went through with the population of transferees who are there on Manus Island and said to them that if they wished to volunteer, he was recording messages where they would be able to tell their story and give their reflections on the impact of people smuggling with the intention that those messages would then be passed on through the pipeline and made available publicly.

People were given a complete voluntary basis as to whether they wanted to participate, and people were also given a guarantee that their identities would be kept anonymous. I’d like now to allow those people who found themselves after

people smuggling operations on Manus Island to be able to give their reflections in their own words:

(Video plays - available at http://www.newsroom.immi.gov.au/videos/manus-transferees-urge-others-not-to-travel-by-boat)

BURKE: For some time, I’ve been saying that the significance of the new policy of the Australian Government is that we’ve taken away the product away that people smugglers are selling. What we have in that footage is people who have been customers of people smugglers saying that the product they paid for has indeed been taken away.

It’s not easy footage for anyone to watch, it’s a reality of the sort of trade that people smuggling is, and the sort of exploitation that by definition it involves. That footage is now available on the Immigration website, and will be put out through social media as well for us to be able to spread that information as far and wide as we can, the whole way up the people smuggling pipeline.

Make no mistake, the trade at the moment hurts people in every way. As Australians people often look at it purely from the perspective of the integrity of our own immigration system, and that matters. I’ve referred on many occasions to the loss of life at sea, and obviously that matters. I think what’s clear from that particular footage is at every step along the way, the treatment of asylum seekers by people smugglers is something which is appalling, is something where we are doing the right thing in wanting to counter.

And what I see when I look at that footage is the fact that what we had hoped this policy would do in terms of taking away the product that people smugglers sell is being endorsed by the people who know best. I’m happy to take any questions.

JOURNALIST: Will this vision be put out in Indonesia, have you let any of the (inaudible) with the Indonesian authorities be broadcasting?

BURKE: The most powerful methods these days, from all the information we have, of getting this out through the pipeline, while broadcast in transit countries is helpful where we can get it, the social media and viral nature of passing on that sort of footage is the most powerful method.

So it’s being released not only on the Immigration website, but will be passed through different channels on a very, very large number of websites that are regularly accessed in the different language groups of the people who are in the pipeline, and I have no doubt that that footage will reach people in ways far and beyond what any statements I can make reach people.

JOURNALIST: And of the people that are in that video, how many others were approached to volunteer their time and how many accepted that?

BURKE: I’ve quite deliberately, and even if we weren’t in caretaker I think I still would have done this the same way, have been completely hands off in the putting together of that, and have allowed the department to do it themselves. So the

information I have is exactly as I’ve described, which is that volunteers were sought, no pressure, no inducement, volunteers were simply sought and a guarantee of anonymity was offered.

And I think we can understand, look, the video would be more powerful again if you could see the faces, I don’t doubt that, but for people in this sort of situation I can understand why a guarantee of anonymity is important for them.

JOURNALIST: Do you think though that, that perhaps if someone from Immigration asked for volunteers, that they may have been under perhaps any sort of assumption or potentially might have a more favourable outcome for them if they actually did take part, even though there was perhaps no inducements offered, but there may have been that sentiment there that perhaps Immigration might (inaudible)?

BURKE: The timing of the filming of this was immediately after my visit, so it was immediately after they’d heard directly from me that even if they had a completely successful claim, they weren’t going to be coming to Australia. Having heard that directly from me, I really don’t think anybody would have approached it on the basis that they thought, you know, if they did that interview, it’d be a way of getting to Australia. They’d just heard personally from the Immigration Minister of Australia that under no circumstances would that be occurring.

JOURNALIST: Mr Burke, we’ve seen so far just really a trickle of asylum seekers relative to the overall flow sent to Manus, when do you expect to see if at all a major ramp up in the number of transfers, because right now I think about one in eight, one in nine of the arrivals have been sent over there, it’s hardly a deterrent, (inaudible) given the flow remains undiminished, there’s no evidence that this is a deterrent for anybody. When do you expect to see a significant ramp up of transfers?

BURKE: Okay well in the first instance, I’ve been careful to not read too much into the figures as they’ve come through, but to claim that the flow is undiminished is factually wrong, you look week by week of the figures before the announcement.

First week after the announcement, the figures remained very high, but let’s not forget those figures include people who are already at sea. You look week by week, to say that the figures are undiminished is factually wrong. Now, in terms of the pace, I can answer your question or not, it’s your call-

JOURNALIST: No, no, go on-

BURKE: Okay. In terms of the pace of transfers, what matters is that people know that 100 per cent of the people arrive will be transferred, 100 per cent. Now the pace of transfer is a secondary issue, the pace of transfer will occur as facilities are ready, as health checks are ready.

Now I’ve heard a different argument put to me at every stage since the announcement by the Opposition in particular, where first of Tony Abbott said if we’re not sending people within 24 to 48 hours we’re not serious, when obviously anyone responsible is going to make sure health checks were done first.

We then heard that a capacity at any point in time needs to be X, Y, or Z, we heard that unless it was a memorandum of understanding we weren’t serious, and a memorandum of understanding was signed and we were told that that shouldn’t have happened because they said it shouldn’t have been exchanged during caretaker.

I presume at some point we’ll end up where the argument is, well nobody spent the rest of their life in Nauru of Manus yet, so you’re not serious.

The truth is, everybody who arrives is subject to the new policy, everybody. And the pace of arrival occurs in an orderly way, the pace of transfer occurs when facilities are ready, when we’re making sure that we’ve got the staff numbers we need, that we’ve got the accommodation we need, that we’ve got the services we need.

We’re not going to be rushed into some sort of chaotic situation where we’re sending people and the facilities are not ready, but whatever is required will be built, and everybody who arrives will be transferred, everybody. And I don’t accept for a minute that the pace of transfer at this point has to equal the pace of arrival.

Everyone who arrives knows now they will end up wheels down at Manus Island or Nauru. And if they don’t believe it until they arrive, they’ll believe it when they arrive.

JOURNALIST: What is the ultimate capacity of Manus?

BURKE: Well the, I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that question, I mean, the figure of, you’ve got the Lombrum site where we’re still expanding, you’ve got the East Lorengau site where depending on your configuration, can take some people say a thousand, some people have a higher figure there, there’s a site not currently agreed to but being discussed and looked at near the old airport at the eastern end of Manus which people say in the order of 4,000 you can get to.

There is a site at the western end of Manus Island which the Papua New Guinea Government is in favour of us looking at, which we’ve looked at which is about, I think from memory, I think it’s 165 hectares but it takes in the order of 10,000 people if required. And a statement from the Foreign Minister, Minister Rimbink Pato, saying if we need to build we will build. Now that’s all before you look at the rest of Papua New Guinea. So there is, I know there is always an angle, can this be overwhelmed in some way? The answer is no, no it can’t be and it won’t be.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible)

BURKE: The companies that we are using, it depends on whether you are building a permanent site or a temporary surge capacity site. So for example, if you go to the old single adult male compound where that use to be tents, about a month ago we took the tents out, we contracted Red Sea who were involved in setting up mining camps and we have had them building a permanent site there. Now the permanent site that will take a few months before that’s complete. At the same time the soccer field which was identified and work only started subsequent to the regional resettlement arrangement being signed now has an initial capacity of 400 there.

When you are outsourcing through the contractors who are involved in setting up mining camps, you can set up surge accommodation as quickly as you need to.

JOURNALST: (Inaudible)

BURKE: Two reasons. One I have no problem with doing this in an orderly way. I have no problem with there being a gradual build up and let’s not forget every single plane load that has gone, has gone without incident. Without incident at all. And that’s something which I do think is worth remarking on and something which I think does go through to the professionalism of doing this in an orderly way. Secondly people are not being sent to Manus or to Nauru to permanently live within the processing centre. They are being sent there to have their claims processed and if they have valid claims they will be settled within that country. That means if you sent everybody at once, you would need the full capacity of arrivals. If you don’t send everybody at once then the capacity required is much less because as people have successful claims, they leave the centre and at the same time you have an increasing number of people who are voluntarily returning. It makes sense logistically and it makes sense in budget terms as well to simply make sure there is a steady pace of people going across otherwise you would end up having to build a lot more facility than would be required for more than a couple of months of a peak time.

JOURNALIST: I know you said that the men volunteered to take part in this, but are they getting used for political messaging in any way.

BURKE: I don’t think there is anything political in that. This is a message that we want to send internationally. The concept of trying to get this message out into the pipeline to have someone speaking in Fasi for example rather than speaking in English, is of itself more powerful. For people to see someone in the exact situation that they were about to place themselves in is much more powerful than watching an Australian Government Minister in a suit and tie saying this is what we will do. So the message that matters to me, is that as many people as arrive we will apply the policy to them. If we end up having to apply the policy to fewer people I regard that as a good outcome. I don’t want people outing their lives at risk in this way.

JOURNALIST: Were any of their responses scripted or prompted in any way?

BURKE: No nil. I know for a fact that none were. But as I say the information that I have is as I described it. I have been completely hands off with the department on this and I think that’s right and proper for it to have been done that way.

JOURNALIST: They are obviously very short snapshots of what were possibly much longer interviews. Do you have any idea of what was said.

BURKE: No, the material that has been presented to me is the material that I have presented to you.

JOURNALIST: You said you hope the video is going to go viral. Is there any way to track that that video does actually end up in the spots that you are trying to target?

BURKE: The international work is largely done through justice and customs. My department deals with the ads that have gone on the Australian network but other than that I don’t do the international part of that. But there are a very large number of websites where they are able to specifically access the opportunity for this to be put up. And it’s going to be viewed the whole way along the pipeline, no doubt at all.

JOURNALIST: The Government message aside. What’s your personal reaction to a video of that nature?

BURKE: It’s awful every step of the way. The cycle that those individuals have gone through from whatever difficulties they started with and statistics will tell you that in all probability some of them have valid claims, some of them don’t. So for some of them no doubt they have started with a horrific situation, have gone through a cycle of great hope, they have been lied to, they have then been treated horrifically by people smugglers but endured it believing that they will still get what they paid for and then at the end of it discovered that they don’t. There is human misery and human tragedy the whole through that. I don’t want smugglers to be able to trade those lies with any credibility and I think this video exposes the lies that people smugglers are telling people.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible)

BURKE: I don’t believe so. As capacity is put in pace, the rate of transfers have been increasing, so in the very first, we had a period of two weeks or thereabouts where transfers weren’t occurring. In the first week, I think we had two planes off then we had three, we’ve been ramping it up, we’ve got planes going to Nauru as well now, and additional to that we’ve now got the beginnings of people leaving directly from Christmas Island and taking themselves out of the process as they’ve realised that these consequences are all true.

The significant gap in all of that has been whether or not the rules would be subjected to children, and family groups having gone to Nauru now sends a very loud message that some people thought that they would never hear. So there are a number of things at play, but the concept of the ramp up combined with the voluntary returns, it’s my view that, you know, I’m not going to give you specific time frames, but the time frames that you’ve offered there, I don’t believe are realistic, I think it’s well inside that.

JOURNALIST: What will the capacity in Manus be in say three months’ time, what sort of capacity, are you and your department planning (inaudible), what will be the capacity in three months’ time?

BURKE: Look the next stage will be the East Lorengau site, these questions on capacity depend in large part on the configuration, when you configure a site for single adult males, you get roughly double the number of people in there who you get when you configure a site for family groups. Now that’s not precisely double and it depends on a number of things with the case load, but configuration questions determine the answer for that so-

COVERAGE OF PRESS CONFERENCE ENDS