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Scott Morrison Comments On Asylum Seeker Conditions On Nauru

The Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Scott Morrison, held a press conference today to comment on his visit to the Nauru detention facility.

Scott Morrison

Morrison outlined his observations of the conditions at Nauru. Of the attitudes of asylum seekers, he said: “The other issue that was raised by those I met with in the facility is the extraordinary inconsistency they find between what is happening to people who were on the same boats at the same time or even after, who are now in Australia on bridging visas in the community receiving welfare. That is something that distresses them and obviously adds greater complication and greater pressure to an already challenging environment. Again that is for the government to explain because it is their policies, their half-hearted policies and their half-hearted approach which has continued to see record arrivals occur. The Coalition never said Nauru on its own was the solution to this; it was one of a series of measures which the government continues to refuse to put in place and we continue to have this mess.”

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young also spoke today on the asylum seeker issue.

  • Listen to Morrison’s press conference (21m)
  • Listen to Hanson-Young’s media conference (4m)

Transcript of Scott Morrison’s press conference in Sydney today.

MORRISON: Thank you for coming along today. I returned from Nauru last night after arriving there on Monday morning holding a series of meetings and inspections of the facilities on Nauru. During that time I had the opportunity to meet with the President of Nauru Sprent Dabwido on two occasions. I also had detailed meetings with the Minister for Justice, Dominic Tabuna and Matthew Batsiua is one of the backbenchers, previously a Minister for Justice, who’s been particularly and directly involved in the management of the setting up of facilities on behalf of the Nauruan government in Nauru. In addition, I met with members of the Opposition Baron Waqa and Aloysius Amwano as well all the other members of the Opposition and the Speaker of the Nauruan parliament, Ludwig Scotty. It’s not the first time I’ve had the opportunity to meet with all these individuals having been to Nauru on two other occasions previously where I had met with all of these gentlemen to discuss these very same issues. In addition to those meetings, I also had the opportunity to be briefed fully by all of the agencies and contractors who are running the facility at Nauru; Salvation Army, Transfield, Wilson Security, IHMS and of course DIAC. I also had the opportunity to meet with representatives of each of the various groups that are living within the facility on Nauru; Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Afghans as well as the Iranians and Iraqis, some three hours plus meetings with those living within the facility. I then took a tour of the facility to see first hand all of the conditions there including the medical facilities, the treatment facilities both for mental health as well as general health, the recreational rooms, learning centres and so on.

I also had the opportunity to look at what the second stage was intended to be as well as discussing what the permanent facilities timetable would be over the coming months. So with that, I thought I would give a report. Currently at the main facility at Nauru there are 9 mental health and 9 general medical staff that are working there providing effectively around the clock support for the almost 400 people that are living at that facility currently. The facility is really at capacity until permanent facilities are available. There are some 80 security staff as well as 55 Salvation Army officers staff who are there working directly as the case management and client officers as they are calling them for those who are living in that facility. The facility runs around the clock in various shift arrangements and with people coming on and off the island. There are around 140 locally engaged staff currently at the facility working across various shifts and I think one of the very positive things is the training effort which has been put in by the contractors Transfield and Wilsons in training up locals to take up roles within the facility which is obviously a very important part of the arrangements. Some 10,300 meals are being prepared every single week, there’s around 100,000 litres of water being consumed every day as well as large quantities of fresh fruit and vegetables that are being brought into the facility.

The major complaints and issues that are there presently relate to the temporary nature of the facilities. Those living there are in tents as are around 70 Australian staff also living in tents. The medical conditions that are presenting as a result of that are skin rashes, headaches, tummy upsets and dehydration, all of which are treatable and all of which are being treated actively and proactively by all of those who are working at that facility. In terms of the incidents that some may have been hearing about here in terms of self-harm and others, it was reported to me that these are in a majority sense overwhelmingly protest action type incidents and I’ll come back to that in a few minutes. There is going to be difficulty with this over the next few months as the permanent facility on the same site as Topside is being constructed as there’ll be the removal of some vegetation which is currently being used as shade. I think what the government has done here in embarking on the site that they have used is I don’t think they have chosen the right site. It wasn’t the site the Coalition proposed. The government may have many explanations as to why they have selected this site but I’m of the strong view that there were better sites that were available and should have been pursued. Now we’re going to have a permanent facility being constructed around a temporary facility which will make a very challenging situation more challenging in the months ahead.

The permanent facility will have around 900 people who will be able to be accommodated on that site, on Topside, that is a site that has no direct access to power or water. All water will have to be trucked up to that site and if they are going to move away from the stand alone power generation that they currently have then obviously poles and wires are going to have to be erected. That’s one of the reasons the Coalition did not favour the Topside site as the preferred site for the permanent facility. What that says to me is that the government largely when their hand was forced into reopening Nauru largely went into this very unprepared. If the government had moved years before, even months before their hand was forced in trying to reopen Nauru then I think they could have gone about this with much more forethought and with a much better understanding of the issues on the ground. They were largely caught flatfooted trying to implement a policy that they didn’t believe in and frankly I don’t think have been able to consider the better options that were available to them.

In terms of how the people are working up there, the collaboration between the various agencies I found to be very positive but there’s no one directly proactively in charge. I think that presents a challenge in the future though to date it hasn’t presented any issues, I think it does present a real accountability problem going forward both in the relationship with the Nauruan government as well as from an accountability point of view back in Australia as well. Someone needs to be in charge of these facilities. Collaboration’s fine, it’s positive, it should be done. But at the same time, at the end of the day, someone has to call the shots and people need to know who that is and who is responsible. I think that is an urgent thing that the government needs to attend to to ensure the facility can be best run.

I was pleased with the gearing up response of the Nauruan police force and the AFP. It would strike me that frankly on Nauru we will be better equipped to deal with a major incident than in many of the detention centres that are in Australia, particularly places like Derby or Weipa where the local police strength is very weak on the ground if there is a major incident that takes place. On Nauru, they will be I think well positioned to deal with any major incident that may take place. There is a Critical Incident Response Management Plan in place on Nauru and I was pleased for the first time when I’ve asked that question when visiting a detention centre or a processing facility in this case that the answer was actually yes.

In terms of the processing the Nauruan Government I think have made great strides in getting a framework in place and legislative framework in place to support that, to support the processing. Once processing commences on Nauru I think that will contribute to the stability of the centre. At present there is a lot of uncertainty about the processing arrangements and given this is all occurring under Nauruan law, it was the right thing to do for the Nauruan government to get their ducks in a row when it came to getting processing arrangements in place. That will come under a lot of strain and they will need to gear up their capacity to deal with that and they’re in the process of doing that right now but I was very impressed with the way the Nauruans have moved very quickly to get arrangements in place to start that process.

Processing is very important on Nauru and it needs to be done quickly so people can get to a final answer. We need to get to a yes or no as quickly as possible so people then can make decisions about what they do next. To use the processing system as a delaying tactic I don’t think is the right way to go, we need to get to a yes or a no as quickly as possible. In my discussions with the Nauruan government I think that’s certainly their objective and I think it’s important the Australian government give them every support to do just that. After someone’s refugee status is determined then there will be another set of decisions that have to be taken and obviously the government’s “No Advantage” position then kicks into gear.

In the centre, there is some minor protest and I say minor from the point of view that there are only a small number of people who are involved. The most distressing thing I learned while I was on Nauru was the nature and sinister nature frankly of this protest activity. It goes to the extent of bullying and intimidation of the vast number of people who are in that facility who are trying to do the right thing. And anyone in this country who thinks they are helping by talking up the protest actions of a violent few on Nauru is putting people at risk and they really should consider very carefully how they engage with people in inflaming what is a very difficult situation on Nauru by talking up and encouraging this protest action on Nauru. They are putting people at risk and I think they should think very carefully about their engagement and frankly that goes to reporting of that behaviour as well. People should consider very carefully the nature of those reports and how they represent them as being a widespread activity because they’re frankly not. The vast majority of people on Nauru are doing the right thing, trying to work collaboratively with those who are looking after them and come to terms with the situation they find themselves in.

The other issue that was raised by those I met with in the facility is the extraordinary inconsistency they find between what is happening to people who were on the same boats at the same time or even after, who are now in Australia on bridging visas in the community receiving welfare. That is something that distresses them and obviously adds greater complication and greater pressure to an already challenging environment. Again that is for the government to explain because it is their policies, their half-hearted policies and their half-hearted approach which has continued to see record arrivals occur. The Coalition never said Nauru on its own was the solution to this; it was one of a series of measures which the government continues to refuse to put in place and we continue to have this mess.

Going forward, and I’ll finish on this, there is a facility for 900 people, there will be a stage 2 which will be on another site which I had the opportunity to inspect yesterday. When they get to that stage 2 it is unclear, it is unlikely to probably get to that before the next election as there is the need to also ramp up the staff accommodation on the island as well. They are the two major construction objectives; getting the permanent facilities in place for those who are living there in the processing facility and the staff accommodation. I understand, and these timetables I stress would need to be confirmed by the Minister I think before they’re official to be fair to the government, but the indications were given to me that between 300 and 400 permanent beds would be available sometime around the end of January or early February with the balance coming on-stream in the months following that up til around May. Whether they achieve that timetable is anyone’s guess. Construction will start in the next few weeks and there is already construction underway on the staff accommodation facilities on the island. The next phase though I think there are things the government will need to address, I had the opportunity to discuss this with the Nauruan government. I think it will be very difficult for people to be held long-term in the permanent facility the government is developing. There are issues with the Bill of Rights under Nauruan Law which the government should be aware of in terms of the freedom of people’s movement. The Nauruans have always wanted an open centre and I think in the way it’s currently designed it will be difficult to achieve that in the long-term for people in that accommodation. What also needs to be understood is that once people receive a positive refugee status under the “no advantage” policy then clearly a different type of accommodation would be needed to address that and as far as I can tell that hasn’t been considered at all in the planning going forward. There are family facilities still to be developed and I maintain that there are still better sites available on Nauru for that second phase of family accommodation to be developed and that is certainly something we would be considering before now and the next election, if we were elected how we would take up the second phase of that project. Happy to take questions.

QUESTION: 500 asylum seekers have been released from Darwin detention centre and are currently on their way to Melbourne and Sydney where they’ll be given bridging visas. What’s your reaction to that?

MORRISON: I suppose the issue is whether those who are being given bridging visas arrived before or after the 13 August and I don’t have that information available to me. If they have arrived after 13 August then I suppose those sitting on Nauru would be reflecting on the bad luck of the lottery that sent them to Nauru and sent others out into the community. That’s the product of more failed policy. In terms of the bridging visas more generally I think every bridging visa that is issued by this government is just another indication of the fact that this government can’t stop the boats.

QUESTION: We’ve got 56 Sri Lankans that were going to take their case to the High Court being scrapped [inaudible]… is this setting a dangerous precedent, the fact the government has essentially caved in to this group?

MORRISON: Well this government has made an art form out of cave ins on asylum policy. Every time the people smugglers or the asylum lawyers lean on this government, they just capitulate and fall over. This has been their history and that’s why I think the people smugglers know this government is a complete soft touch. The send back policy the government has been pursuing for the last few weeks was a product of again the pressure placed on them by the Opposition when the pirate boat was on its way to Australia. It was only then that this government sought to enact those powers that enable them to do exactly what they’ve been doing but I think it always had a use-by date on it because it wouldn’t be long before the asylum lawyers found their way around this and it was always an injunction waiting to happen. Our view has always been that we should be supporting the Sri Lankan government in their interception efforts closer to Sri Lanka first and foremost and secondly where vessels actually do get past that interception activity in Sri Lanka we should be stopping them before they get into our waters and arranging for their transfer back into Sri Lanka into safe conditions and working with the Sri Lankan government to ensure that people can be returned back into safe conditions with the support of other agencies like the UNHCR and IOM who are already on the ground in Sri Lanka and are already assisting with the safe return of refugees, Tamil refugees included, from India to Sri Lanka.

QUESTION: Why do you believe the government would not have wanted its screening process to be scrutinised by the High Court? It’s obvious that they’ve seen little chance of success.

MORRISON: It’s not uncommon for the government to capitulate on their own policy and capitulate to asylum lawyers, many of whom are often taxpayer funded. It’s not uncommon for that to happen. The government would have to explain for themselves why they think they were on shaky ground. I’m not in a position to do that for them. We advocated a different approach, we didn’t oppose the approach they were taking, we think it was the lesser of the options available to them from an effectiveness point of view. They’ve rejected that as they’ve always rejected turn backs. They say they reject turn-backs to Indonesia because they say the Indonesian government won’t cooperate. They’ve never actually asked them. But when the Sri Lankan government says they will cooperate, they are already doing it and they want help, the government still won’t cooperate with turn-backs. So what we learnt from that is this government just won’t do turn backs. This government won’t implement a policy of turn backs and transfer backs as a result of that policy. It’s just not in their DNA and the people smugglers know it.

QUESTION: But on to the Darwin thing, what’s your reaction to that? 500 of these people have been released, it’s unknown yet when they arrived, what do you think of that? What are your thoughts on them being say allowed to work or not allowed to work on bridging visas, or just being sent to Sydney?

MORRISON: As I said before, I think every bridging visa issued is an admission of the defeat of the government’s own failed policies. We’re issuing thousands upon thousands upon thousands of these bridging visas because the government’s policies have failed to such an extent the detention network can no longer accommodate it and that decision was made over a year ago now. This will only I think exacerbate the tensions that we’re seeing on Nauru but frankly also continue to operate as a pull factor. People now know you get to Australia, the likelihood of going to Nauru is pretty remote under this government, almost as remote as the location and they will end up in Australia living in the community on a bridging visa and the government wonders why people are getting on boats.

QUESTION: Do you think they should have to work if they are [inaudible]

MORRISON: Well look I will leave that to the government in terms of their bridging visa policy. Our temporary protection visa policy has been the same for a decade. I introduced a bill or sought to after being voted down by the government, to have our TPV policy put back in place. That visa policy says this – that if you are found to be a refugee and you arrived illegally by boat you will have a statutory lock out on getting a permanent visa. You will be given a TPV and under that, as was last time, there would be work rights, an access to welfare and it’s our new policy that they would have to work for that. That is our policy, that is the policy we stand by. I will let the government explain the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of their policy.

QUESTION: There are reports today that Sri Lankan asylum seekers have cut their prices to $10,000 to $500 Is this a sign of the government’s policies actually working if they are having to cut their prices to try and get customers?

MORRISON: No I don’t think the government can claim under any circumstances that their polices are working on our borders. If they are it is a pretty desperate action. When we have people arriving in record numbers, when we have bridging visas being handed out left, right and centre, when we have the sort of cost chaos and tragedy we have seen over the last five years you can only describe what the government has been doing as a complete failure and that will remain so long as this government is in charge of that policy. People smugglers will continue to ply their trade at will under this government and they will use every device but I will say this – it demonstrates that the smugglers are quite cashed, not just in Sri Lanka but I would say more so in Indonesia and the government’s 800 cap on their Malaysia arrangement I think it just highlights the farce of that. We always said the 800 cap was a deal breaker because it could be so quickly overwhelmed and they are demonstrating that. They can cash flow boats if they have to. What you need is a strong deterrence policy, a single minded focus on deterrence, not just in Australia but the region as well. That is why I am saying the government should be supporting the Sri Lankan government dealing with the problem at the source, talking to the Sri Lankan government about the conditions for safe return, things that need to happen in Sri Lanka to support that. I will be going to Sri Lanka next month. These are the issues I will be discussing along with Julie Bishop with the Sri Lankan government as well as visiting Tamil areas independently and seeing those conditions for ourselves. These are the things our government should be doing and the Opposition in this area is acting like the government, the government is acting like an Opposition. They need to get good policies and we have got some good suggestions for them which they refuse to take up. Thanks for your time.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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