DAVID CROWE | Sydney Morning Herald | Extract
CANBERRA – Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison is facing new calls to remove all refugees from Manus Island as political leaders from Papua New Guinea call for the "full closure" of the asylum seeker process on the island.
PNG prime minister James Marape said he had "expressed clearly" to home affairs minister Peter Dutton the need for a schedule and timetable to shut the "entire asylum processes" by resettling hundreds of refugees.
James Marape says he wants a timetable in place to resettle refugees on Manus Island but has denied any asylum seekers are in detention.
"As PNG has always stood in to assist Australia in times of need, as it has done for us also, we will ensure that we have a mutually workable timetable and closure program that is healthy for all of us – but more importantly, healthy for those people who have been part of us in Manus and PNG," Mr Marape said.
And in a significant warning about social problems on the island, Manus Province governor Charlie Benjamin said all refugees should be re-settled elsewhere as soon as possible after being at the facilities for seven years.
"We sympathise with them. We want this trouble to come to an end, for them to find a place to go to," said Mr Benjamin, a former PNG minister who has been governor of the province since 2012.
"But I think the onus really is on Australia, because [the refugees] don't want to be in Papua New Guinea. We can only assist – it's the Australians that will have to decide. But the sooner it's done the better it is for these people."
Mr Benjamin acknowledged the social concerns in his province over the presence of refugees and asylum seekers who had been there for seven years without any certainty over their future.
"The social problems have always been social problems. That is an issue that we have. When they are around, you know, socialising and this and that, you know, that has always been a problem and has always been mentioned in the past. But we have always taken good care of them," he said.
Asked about refugees who had formed relationships with local residents and had children, Mr Benjamin said he did not know how to deal with the problem.
"That is the problem that we now have and I don't know how we can be able to solve that," he said.
"Most of them have gone and the children and the ladies are left to deal with that."
Mr Benjamin said "the sooner the better" when asked how urgently he would like to see a closure.
The Manus governor made the remarks to journalists in Parliament House in Canberra after a joint press conference between Mr Morrison and Mr Marape in which the two national leaders denied any asylum seekers were in detention because they were free to move on the island.
"The detention centre on Manus Island is closed, has been closed for some time. There is no detention centre on Manus Island," Mr Morrison said.
"I think it's important that Australians are no longer told that somehow there is a detention centre that's operating on Manus Island."
Mr Morrison said the accommodation facility on the island now held about 300 people but was down from 1353 at the peak of the inflow of asylum seekers under the Gillard and Rudd governments before the 2013 election.
There was a difference in emphasis between the two prime ministers, with Mr Marape saying he wanted a timetable towards the "full closure of the entire asylum processes" on Manus.