Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Transcript of press conference: Sydney: 27 July 2013: Nauru; Manus Island; Asylum Seekers.

Download PDFDownload PDF


TONY BURKE: As you would be aware, very soon after I got the portfolio, I made the decision that it was important for me to see firsthand the number of sites. Within a few days I was at Pontville in Hobart, and I was also right at the start had planned the trip that I have just returned from visiting our centres on Manus Island and also at Nauru.

If I deal with them in reverse order, with respect to Nauru, I was there yesterday for a visit. I met with both the President and with the Minister for Justice and went and visited the site where the destruction has occurred following the riots, also met with the staff and then went to where people were having their claims processed are now residing and met with some of them before returning home, arriving back today. The facilities which had been destroyed were brand new.

In terms of the quality of the accommodation

that was there, prior to them being burned, these were good quality facilities. It would be

wrong to presume that everybody who has claims there in Nauru was part of the action. There are more than a hundred people who have charges against their names under the law of Nauru or in the process of being charged, currently being held but in the process of being charged, under the law of Nauru, but that is a minority of the number of the people who were there.

There has been an attempt by some to argue that somehow the conditions in which people were housed in Nauru in some way made action of this nature inevitable and there's been comments by some that have attempted to paint the people who were involved in the destruction somehow as being victims themselves.

I have to say I don't hold that view for one

minute nor do the majority of people who were there for their claims to be processed. The majority of people have gone from a situation where they were about to move into massively improved accommodation to now being in mass accommodation where close to a hundred of them are sharing a single marquee. The level of frustration from people who had had their claims getting close to finalisation is huge.

The frustration that they are feeling and was

conveyed directly to me and to members of the delegation who accompanied me was extraordinary. Certainly the people who were about to move into better accommodation

don't view the people who burnt down their accommodation as victims, and I want to make clear that there is no attempt from Australia in talking to the Government of Nauru that anything other than the full force of the law of Nauru will apply. The people who are victims are not the people who torched buildings, sprayed fire extinguishers in the eyes of authorities and turned metal bars into weapons. That's the action of someone who has a criminal penalty - or criminal charges to follow. It's not the actions of a victim.

But it would also be wrong if people were to

characterise these actions as being assigned to everybody who was there having claims to be processed. That would be a grossly unfair characterisation of the majority of people there. We are now in the process of

undergoing a large operation of clearing the areas that have been damaged, and when I say damaged, these are destroyed beyond repair. The staff building where the services are carried remains in mint condition but the new accommodation facilities are completely gone.

No one should think that the Australian

Government will respond by saying, well, that's the end of the facility at Nauru. We will be re-establishing the facility at Nauru. We will be going - we have temporary accommodation that's there at the moment but nobody, I repeat nobody, will be in a situation where there is an advantage in engaging in criminal behaviour and destruction. The penalties for the different charges that are open to the

Nauruan Government involve serious, long prison terms and whether or not they apply to specific individuals will depend on the facts as they're established and will depend on decisions made through the courts and under the law and the proper authorities of Nauru.

But Australia respects the right of Nauru to

enforce their own criminal law. Let's not forget these are offences which would be illegal in every country of the world and Nauru has particularly strong penalties as I understand it for offences such as arson. We then - if I then refer to Manus Island.

I wanted to make sure when I originally booked

the visit to Manus to make sure that the facilities were ready to go so that we could begin transferring people from Christmas Island to Manus Island as soon as health checks had been completed. That process involved as well clearing out of Manus Island people who had arrived prior to the new arrangements with Papua New Guinea to maximise the extent to which we had capacity. Everybody who can be removed from Manus Island has now been removed, there is in the order of 20 to 30 people who remain there because they have charges pending against them under the law of Papua New Guinea. And obviously we're not going to remove somebody while there's charges being laid against them.

But that means we have significant immediate

capacity at Manus Island which - and the

capacity that we have is a mixture of hard, more permanent structures and tents and marquees in different compounds that are already there. I also went to a number of sites which have been earmarked for rapid expansion. I also sat down with officials and worked through a number of other sites which had not yet been designated to look at other areas where expansion might be possible. I won't be designating what they are yet. We'll work that through appropriately with the authorities in Papua New Guinea and on Manus itself. But nobody should be in any doubt of this simple fact. The capacity is there for us to make sure as many people as test our resolve will be sent to Papua New Guinea for processing their claims against the convention. We always said, and the Prime Minister made clear when the new arrangement with Papua New Guinea was put forward, people will test our resolve, people will test whether or not we serious about this.

One of the arguments that has been put there

as a test is whether or not we would have the capacity. Be in no doubt the capacity is there already. Also be in no doubt that people are on the ground to expand the existing capacity. We have members of the army who will be there doing various forms of survey work preparing particular sites and we've engaged a logistics company which has been involved in the construction of mining camps to be able to do very rapid expansion of that site, so nobody should be in any doubt. If people want to test our resolve and we always said they would try;

if people want to test our resolve then whatever capacity is required will be provided and the new arrangement will be

implemented. Happy to take any questions.

QUESTION: Minister, you say 20 to 30 people remain on

Manus Island. Firstly, how many people were removed from the detention centre and where did they go?

TONY BURKE: The people who were - I'll get the precise

figures for you from the department. I'd rather on anything like that we get verified numbers specifically for you. So I'll ask the department to provide that to you afterwards. But they've been transferred back to Australia where their claims will be processed there. My view is the absolute priority we have is to make sure that every single person who arrives subsequent to the announcement of the new arrangements with Papua New Guinea is processed in, is processed offshore for their claims. I think that's essential. And that's why we've moved people off.

QUESTION: When you say Australia, do you mean

Christmas Island or the mainland?

TONY BURKE: I'll get the department to give you the precise locations. But yeah, we'll be able to turn that information round to you very quickly.

QUESTION: And following this, how many people can be

sent to Manus Island now?

TONY BURKE: Well, as many as is required. We have people on the ground expanding it. It does not take long once you've levelled the ground and sorted out the drainage. It does not take long to provide tents and marquees. It does not take long at all. There are some changes in configuration of the site which I've asked to occur to make sure that we can segregate individuals if they're involved in any forms of intimidation among other people who are also there to have claims assessed.

So there's some changes in configuration that

I've asked for, that’s being done. But the capacity for expansion there, I've gone to a number of sites that are ready to go, a number of sites that are earmarked and agreed to and I've also started looking at additional sites way beyond any of the numbers that we're dealing with at the moment so that if people want to keep testing our resolve, then capacity will continue to increase.

QUESTION: It's not just about facilities though is it? It's

also about expertise and UNHCR has raised concerns about Australia's arrangement currently with PNG and whether it is adequate, there’s an adequate legal framework for processing and for protection.

TONY BURKE: Importantly Papua New Guinea have now

withdrawn their reservations to the

convention. That letter has gone from the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea through to the United Nations. They've made the commitment to enforce the Refugee

Convention. And certainly, any assistance and cooperation with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees is something that we're open to and I think they've

acknowledged in their statement, the conversations and meetings they've been having with my officials. We want to make sure and Papua New Guinea in withdrawing their reservations with respect to anyone sent from Australia is committed to making sure that people are processed appropriately according to the convention and that's what will happen.

QUESTION: Do you believe that conditions at Manus Island are adequate?

TONY BURKE: Yes I do, yes I do. I went to have a look for

myself, I saw it for myself and I do believe they are.

QUESTION: You said there are changes in the

configuration that you've asked for. Are they going to address some of the concerns around the rape of men there? Is that going to be something that these changes are going to address?

TONY BURKE: The concept of being able to segregate people who are involved in any form of intimidation, whether it's what you've described or any other form of intimidation is something that in terms of management of a processing centre is important, it was a specific suggestion that was put to me by the person who was the

source of that SBS program when I spoke to him on the phone. It was one of the priorities that he said we should look at. I sought advice, I agreed with him and I've made sure that that's happened. If I can add though with respect to the allegations that you've referred to, I had the Secretary of the department travelling with me to both Nauru and to Manus. And for each of those sites, one we have the allegations you've referred to, with the other, we have what's happened with respect to the rioting and the damage which has occurred on Nauru.

For each of those the same three things need

to be resolved. One, determining exactly what the facts were. Two, making sure those facts are available to any of the authorities for any action that would take place as a result, and three, to make sure that we get clear

recommendations on any systems

improvements that can be made to avoid either what's been alleged or what we've seen occur, happening in the future.

The Secretary of the department will be

announcing in the course of the coming days a review process independent of the

department to deal with exactly those things. It's being done by the department, by the Secretary of the department and I'll leave him to make the announcement but we've spoken about it, I'm comfortable with the direction in which he's heading and I support it.

QUESTION: It's been acknowledged that following the

policy announcement that the boats would immediately stop. Do you have a ballpark figure of how long it will take until the smugglers get the message that they won't be, or that the people won't be residing in Australia?

TONY BURKE: I'm not going to second guess the mindset of criminal groups that put people at risk on the high seas. I'm not going to second guess what it will take for them to stop taking advantage of people. But be in no doubt they no longer have a product to sell. Up until now, they've been taking money from people on the basis that they were selling residence in Australia, the right to live and work in Australia.

No one who gives them money is going to get

that. People will not be settled in Australia. That's what the new arrangement means. Now I am making sure that that message gets out through Australia, through people in contact with those in the pipeline and along the pipeline itself as loudly as possible. But if it takes for people to see the planes going across from Christmas to Manus, if it takes for people to see that we are true to our word, well, we are making sure of that. So I'm not going to give arbitrary timelines, but what I will say is anybody at all who is paying money to a people smuggler, if they think they're getting residence in Australia, they're wrong. And if they want to test us to prove that they're wrong, then that's what will happen.

QUESTION: So when will the plane go from Christmas

Island, from the latest boat that arrived on Thursday? When will it go from Christmas Island to Manus?

TONY BURKE: I announced on when I stood with Prime

Minister Rudd and Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, that we would be conducting the health checks first, that the health checks we conduct take in the order of two weeks and that that would be the only delay before we saw planes going across. I've now been to have a look at the facilities myself and I'm in no doubt that they're ready, so the only delay is with respect to the health checks and despite being taunted a week ago by the Leader of the Opposition and encouraged to send people across without conducting those health checks, that was a either a childish or just an irresponsible thought bubble from him. And we will do things exactly as we said. We said that the new arrangement would be enforced, it will be. We said that people would be sent once the health checks have been complete and they will be.

QUESTION: You said before that it wouldn't take long at all to increase capacity at Manus Island. Can you give us a better timeframe in terms of how long you expect it would take to increase capacities to 3000?

TONY BURKE: Once you've got your drainage sorted and the ground levelled, it takes very little time to erect a tent. And so if I can put it in these terms, if you look at the rate at which people

have been testing our resolve over the first week, our capacity to increase, our capacity to increase accommodation is way, way in front of the rate of boat arrivals. Way in front. And I've noticed some have wanted to imply that there's somehow capacity constraints. It's a really irresponsible people, a really

irresponsible thing for people to imply, and a really dangerous game for people to play claiming that there are capacity constraints here.

The moment it's believed there are capacity

constraints, the people smugglers will just try to fill it thinking they can then go back to business as usual. There's no more business as usual for them. It's over.

QUESTION: So when Bob Carr says that it could be up to

50,000 or more people coming by boat every year, then there is capacity there to cope with those kinds of numbers?

TONY BURKE: We'll be able to cope with whatever comes at us. I've no doubt there's a lot of locations, there's a lot of spare capacity. I have no doubt at all that as many as try to test our resolve will find that we are serious about this. We are not going to allow a situation to continue where a product is being sold to people, some of whom are opportunistic, some of whom are desperate. But either way, a whole lot of them drown. We are serious about implementing this and we will.

QUESTION: How long until we will see women,

unaccompanied children and families at Christmas Island?

TONY BURKE: On that I hope to be able to give you more

information soon. There's some inquiries I've made directly about that. I've always said that there will be a delay but people will still end up there. But I won't go further than that today.

QUESTION: What inquiries have you made?

TONY BURKE: I won't go further than that today.

QUESTION: You said that there's up to 100 people per

marquee in Nauru at the moment. Is there a limit to what’s safe, when you're talking about capacity, are you going to have some kind of limits around how many people per marquee, how things are set up?

TONY BURKE: Oh look, what we've got at the moment is in the wake of their having been a fire and us having absolutely no choice. What I've described in Nauru is in no way representative of the way places like Manus will be set up, in no way representative. That's just straight an emergency, the accommodation was gone. We had to find a roof over people's heads. As a permanent or even long-term temporary solution, it's not acceptable.

We currently have no choice at all because of

the damage that occurred but it won't be long

before we're, we have a better form of accommodation for people there. And in terms of the numbers we're dealing with there, a large number of people are currently not being housed by us but being housed by the penal system of Nauru.

QUESTION: Did you get any kind of idea when you were

there of how that actually happened? How the authorities allowed that situation to occur?

TONY BURKE: Yeah. I was taken through it step by step but I was taken through it step by step through the advice of senior officials of my department. Given what the Secretary will be

commissioning in the next few days, I think I - rather than me go through detail by detail the latest advice I've received, I'll let that process take its course. In an incident of that nature and of that scale, frequently on investigation some of the initial facts vary, and I've always tried to be very careful with you that we're at the final point of verification of any detail before you're getting it directly from me but I've also said to the department as best their information is, they should be providing it to the media as they go.

QUESTION: Just on another issue, this is the last weekend before an election in August can be called. Can we expect any kind of announcement?

TONY BURKE: Can I tell you I have absolutely no idea,

absolutely no idea. I have a very serious job with a lot at stake in terms of people's lives in

front of me and right now I'm focused on little other than that.

QUESTION: So the party hasn't had any kind of discussion about when an election will actually be held?

TONY BURKE: Well, if they have, it would've been while I was in Manus Island, transiting through the Solomon Islands and visiting Nauru. So I don't know the answer to your question.

QUESTION: What's your response to speculation that it

will be delayed until much later in the year?

TONY BURKE: Right now, I'm focused exactly as I've

described. It's not a political line, it's true. This is huge. It's a very big job and that's what I'm doing.

QUESTION: Are you confident that those ads are working?

TONY BURKE: Yeah I am, yeah I am. The process of doing the direct offshore ads takes a little longer because you need to work through some processes country by country before a government starts to advertise there. It's important that you do that, and that creates a level of delay offshore. If we hadn't started immediately in a very big domestic campaign, the message wouldn't have started to get through the pipeline and from anecdotal information that I've been given, the information is not universally through, we still need to push a lot harder. But there is no doubt that there is a growing level of

awareness that there has been a fundamental change in the way Australia deals with this issue and that can only result in saving lives.

I'm surprised that my political opponents have

sought to undermine that message, they would have their own reasons for doing so but when you think what are the actual

implications for people, if they take at face value the message is that they're hearing from the Opposition, it would seem to me to be a deeply irresponsible path. Thank you very much.