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Minister discusses resettlement of 311 asylum seekers who have been deemed to be refugees.

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VIVIAN SCHENKER: Now that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Department of Immigration have granted refugee status to 311 mainly Iraqi people, on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, the government is on the hunt for countries willing to take them in. With only seven Afghanis on Nauru so far deemed to be genuine refugees, the government is also under pressure to establish a safe haven for Afghanis until conditions in their homeland improve.


Cathy Van Extel is with us again from Canberra. Cathy, what is the federal government doing to find homes for those who have achieved refugee status?


CATHY VAN EXTEL: The Australian government, in the past, has indicated that it would give priority to those people with family links here, but at this stage it has not made any commitment in relation to the 311 people who have been deemed to be refugees. Of course the Prime Minister did insist, in the past, that they would not set foot in Australia.


Now, the Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, is planning to visit Europe next week to try to secure some support from countries to take refugees. The minister joins us this morning.


Good morning.


PHILIP RUDDOCK: Good morning, Cathy.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Where will you be going specifically in Europe?


PHILIP RUDDOCK: Can I deal first with the comment you have just made that the Prime Minister said people would never set foot in Australia. The Prime Minister made it very clear that in relation to those people who were found to be refugees, Australia would be involved in burden-sharing and would accept a fair share.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: So what fair share will we take?


PHILIP RUDDOCK: I know the Leader of the Opposition has been trying to put out this view that we were saying nobody would ever come. I mean, that was not said then and it was not the view we had.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Accepting that then, Minister, what fair share will we take?


PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, what we believe we should look at is finding a solution in which there is burden-sharing, and at this stage we still don’t know the final determinations. We still have to look at the numbers of people who may be found to be refugees in Indonesia. There are a range of issues in relation to the processes that countries that agree to assist in resettlement will want to go through—the same sorts of processes we undertake in relation to character and other checking.


There have been indications from a number of countries, and I don’t intend to go through and name them each in turn. I think they have got to go through the proper processes of determining how they want to be involved and to what extent they want to be involved before I start making announcements about who may or may not wish to participate in that burden-sharing role. A number of countries....


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Looking at the comments then about, at least giving priority to those with family links, you surely have an idea of, at least with the 311 who have been deemed to be refugees this week, of those, what links do they have with Australia?


PHILIP RUDDOCK: Well, I know there are a number of people who have spouses in Australia. There are numbers of others who have brothers and sisters. I mean, always in the case loads of people who sought to come to Australia unlawfully, were people who had substantial Australian links, and that gave reason to some people to argue that this was more about family reunion than about protection issues. But if a decision has been made that somebody is a refugee and they have substantial links with Australia, the view that we have taken is that it would be unreasonable to expect other countries to participate in the splitting of families and so certainly, as a priority, we think they are the groups of people that we would look to take.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Do you have any numbers though?


PHILIP RUDDOCK: I haven’t been formally advised, in relation to the particular groups who have been found to be refugees, what those numbers are. I mean, I have been given some indicative figures about the fact that there are some people who fit within those categories but the precise numbers haven’t been furnished to me.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: You are heading over to Europe, there is already indications that New Zealand, Ireland and Sweden are open to the idea of taking some of the refugees. What happens, though, if you are unable to find countries to accept the full complement of 311 refugees? Would they inevitably come to Australia?


PHILIP RUDDOCK: Not necessarily. The issue has to be seen, I think, in the context when we are dealing with case loads like this. We gave certain commitments to Nauru and to Papua New Guinea that, at the end of the day, given the nature of their size and populations, there wouldn’t be an expectation that they would be expected to house these groups of people that they took on board for processing. So that is the general proposition that we put but there is no particular hurry, on our part, in relation to people who are safe and secure, to be finding immediate solutions on the basis that they have a priority claim for resettlement places.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: So you don’t accept then that there is a moral imperative to ensure that refugees are resettled quickly?


PHILIP RUDDOCK: No, I don’t actually because what you are dealing with are ... these people have joined the queue of 14 million people who have been found to be refugees, and your only obligation to refugees is to provide them with sanctuary from persecution. Now, none of these people are in a situation where they are going to be persecuted. And the issue of resettlement has to be weighed in terms of people’s priority of need for a resettlement place. And while, over the longer term, I accede to the view that it is unreasonable to expect small countries to shoulder a disproportionate burden, in terms of the sorts of people you would take through resettlement programs, those who are immediately at risk in countries of first asylum. Women who may be in refugee camps who are vulnerable to rape and other forms of abuse, simply because they have lost their partner through a persecution situation, may well be the sorts of people that you would want to see given greater priority in a needs based system for resettlement.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Minister, we are running out of time, but I also want to speak to you about the Afghani asylum seekers whose applications would fail. Now, there are reports already of unrest in the Nauru detention centre. Would you consider a safe-haven option for those whose applications failed but would be deemed unnecessarily, or not at the appropriate time to send them home?


PHILIP RUDDOCK: Hundreds of thousands of people are being returned to Afghanistan right now.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: But there are issues about whether the infrastructure is in place to accept too many.


PHILIP RUDDOCK: We are talking about relatively modest numbers of people, and hundreds of thousands of people are returning home right now.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: So you are ruling out a safe-haven option?


PHILIP RUDDOCK: No, I am simply saying that in relation to any scheme that you put in place—and the scheme we are proposing to put in place is one which will give people some assistance in going back, assistance that is not being granted to people who are leaving Pakistan and Iran right now. In other words, they would be far more generously treated than others who are going back in like circumstances right now. And the question you have to ask is: if you put in place an arrangement which gave people a temporary residency in Australia, for an indeterminent time in which you enabled them to work, to earn money for remittances, and you also provided for board and keep and so on—of the sort that we did for the Kosovars, which is the alternative that is being proposed—why would anybody want to accept an immediate offer to return if there was a more advantageous basis upon which you were able to stay in Australia? Now, my view is that that would become a factor which would mitigate against successful repatriation now. And I think in terms of the people themselves, it is better that they have the opportunity to go home earlier and to start rebuilding their lives than to delay those sorts of decisions. Inevitably, the demands come at a later point in time, as we have seen in the other groups of people who have been in Australia without lawful authority, is that you have let them stay for so long it is now unreasonable to ask them to go back.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Philip Ruddock, thank you.


PHILIP RUDDOCK: Nice to talk to you.


VIVIAN SCHENKER: Federal Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, speaking with Cathy Van Extel in Canberra.