What is PM Turnbull to do about Manus Island?

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has a politically unwelcome, though not completely unexpected, headache: what does he do about the nearly 1000 men set to be released from the Manus Island detention centre? He says they are not going to come to Australia.

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Let’s just put to one side for the minute what the decision to close the detention centre means for those detainees themselves, not because their concerns are not important, but because the decision about their future is a political one.

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The Australian political debate on asylum seekers has moved to such a point since 2001 that even to talk about the needs and goals of asylum seekers is seen as ‘soft’ or ‘inappropriate’ or ‘weak’. Some say that talk gives courage to people smugglers.

The debate has been defined by the parameters set by John Howard, Philip Ruddock and Peter Reith in the post-Tampa period when the Norwegian cargo ship rescued nearly 450 asylum seekers in 2001 but was refused entry into Australian waters. What came out of that was the so called ‘Pacific Solution’, where asylum seekers were processed on Nauru and on Manus Island in PNG, with the threat that no asylum seekers who tried to come to Australia by boat would find permanent settlement here.

John Howard and his team in 2001 were at the forefront of what has now become a more widespread practice, particularly in Europe, where governments are now starting to push boats back. Australia was the first developed country to do it and that policy has provided a model for others.

The flow of asylum seekers did slow as a result of the Howard Government’s tough measures, and in 2004 the last asylum seeker on Manus Island was placed and the centre closed.

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It opened again during the Labor years. Many analysts are quick to repeat the current government’s line and say that ‘Labor opened the floodgates by being soft on boats’. Even many Labor MPs say that period where they closed down the Pacific Solution while in government was a disaster.

In a world awash with refugees from Myanmar to Iraq and Syria, the need is great and places for settlement are few.

Tony Abbott swept Labor aside and ended the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years in 2013 with the mantra ‘we will stop the boats’. It wasn’t the only policy that helped him win office, but it was a key one.

So in this climate it isn’t very popular to talk about the needs of the asylum seekers. Both major political parties say tough action is the only way to stop deaths at sea. Both parties have tried to secure third country resettlement for asylum seekers but with little success.

In a world awash with refugees from Myanmar to Iraq and Syria, the need is great and places for settlement are few. Australia has said it will take an extra 12,000 refugees this year from the Syrian crisis but only a handful have been processed.

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So that leads back to the question of what Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will do now. Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill sees no upside in keeping the facility open. It isn’t popular in PNG. Politically he is fighting for his own survival at home. He has no political capital to expend on supporting Australia’s political agenda. But he is reliant on Australian foreign aid. PNG gets the highest proportion of the Australian aid budget, so while he is happy to stand up and state his case, he is also mindful that he needs Australian support.

In two weeks Australia is likely to be in caretaker mode and the election campaign will have started. The government is going to have to move quickly on this.

Prime Minister Turnbull has said the tough policies stop asylum seekers. He says any move to bring them here would undermine the policy and open the gates again.

There are nearly 1000 men on Manus who tried to reach Australia by boat. Around half have been classified as refugees. Where are they to go?