Immigration Minister Peter Dutton appears to want to negotiate with the Papua New Guinea government over the planned closure of the Manus Island detention centre.
In a statement responding to PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s announcement the centre would close, Mr Dutton said he would continue discussions with the neighbouring government.
Mr O’Neill’s decision followed a PNG Supreme Court ruling that the centre was illegal.
Mr Dutton on Wednesday said he would work with the government’s PNG partners to “address the issues” raised in the court ruling.
However, PNG MP Ronnie Knight said Mr Dutton’s statement was unrealistic, while playing down suggestions the centre could stay open if Australia put more money on the table.
“I don’t see that can happen unless there’s a major, drastic improvement in the way (the men) are treated,” Mr Knight told ABC radio on Wednesday.
In his statement, Mr Dutton confirmed the male asylum seekers and refugees would not be settled in Australia.
However, the fate of the 850 men remains unclear, with no indication by the government of where they could be relocated.
Australian National University professor of international law Don Rothwell says there’s no legal reason why the asylum seekers couldn’t be brought back to Christmas Island.
Nauru was also an option, but it was full, he said.
Mr O’Neill, while announcing the closure, said his government had never expected the asylum seekers to be kept for so long on Manus Island after signing a 12-month deal with the Rudd Labor government in 2013.
But he was proud his country had been able to stop the loss of life due to people-smuggling.
“Papua New Guinea will immediately ask the Australian government to make alternative arrangements for the asylum seekers currently held at the regional processing centre,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.
“For those that have been deemed to be legitimate refugees, we invite them to live in Papua New Guinea only if they want to be part of our society and make a contribution to our community.”
Mr Dutton agreed with Mr O’Neill’s assessment the centre had saved lives and thanked him for PNG’s continued support.
“As I have said, and as the Australian government has consistently acted, we will work with our PNG partners to address the issues raised by the Supreme Court of PNG,” he said.
“We will continue discussions with the PNG Government to resolve these matters.”
Mr O’Neill said the closure would be carefully managed in conjunction with local businesses and the Australian government.
Negotiations with Australia would focus on a timeframe for closing the facility and managing the resettlement of people at the centre.
However, Mr Knight said the prime minister’s press release to PNG media stated the centre would close by Thursday.
“We don’t know what’s happening, but there’s no other place for them to go for the time being,” he said.
Opposition immigration spokesman Richard Marles said Mr Dutton should be in Port Moresby resolving the problem.
It was vital the system of offshore processing be maintained, he said.
“PNG never imagined people would be on Manus for so long – we didn’t either,” Mr Marles told Sky News.
“They have botched this from day one.”
Greens spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young said the men should be immediately brought to Australia for processing.