It took a regime change in PNG to strengthen Australia's desire to reopen the Manus Island detention centre but there is still a long way to go before any processing centre will be operational.
The move was one of PNG's new Prime Minister Peter O'Neill first decisions after dramatically coming to office earlier this month.
The Manus Island centre was set up in 2001 as part of John Howard's costly Pacific Solution, a direct response to the Tampa incident. In 2007 Oxfam and A Just Australia released a report, Price Too High: Australia's Approach to Asylum Seekers, that calculated the Pacific solution cost $1 billion over five years. This worked out to a processing cost per person of $500,000. In total, fewer than 1700 asylum seekers in Nauru, Manus and Christmas Island.
In the PNG the last inmate on Manus was Aladdin Sisalem, who was kept as a lone inmate from July 2003 until he was granted asylum in Australia in June 2004.
Sisalem, born in Kuwait to a Palestinian father and Egyptian mother, made several claims during his stay that he was beaten by PNG defence force members but one of the most unusual stories came later that year when Sisalem was reunited in Melbourne with Honey the Cat, a Manus Island tabby he befriended during his incarceration. With the moggy gone, the centre was mothballed and has remained empty ever since.
In late 2009 when then PM Kevin Rudd was facing increasing heat over asylum seekers, I reported that the PNG government would consider reopening the centre if Australia requested such a move. The Manus Island governor Michael Sapau was more eager to get the centre operational considering the income it provided for his home.
Rudd's people did not respond. After all, they were somewhat wedged because the Pacific Solution was one of the first Howard-era policies the Labour party tore up when coming to power.
But by July 2010 then foreign affairs minister Stephen Smith, under new PM Julia Gillard and amid a hastily conceived East Timor solution (which turned out to be more of a failure than a solution), was briefing PNG on hopes to reopen the Manus centre.
At the time PNG's then foreign affairs minister Sam Abal said: "sometimes I face resistance from within" regarding the plan. Behind the scenes this resistance became louder. Senior PNG bureaucrats did not enjoy the previous Manus Island program, finding Australian immigration officials difficult to deal with.
There was also resentment to becoming the dumping ground for Australia's problem. Officials I spoke with expressed compassion for the plight of asylum seekers. Another concern was that asylum seekers in the centre received better conditions, food and health support than locals on the remote island.
But despite all this PM Gillard, facing more scrutiny, dipping polls and growing public support for a hardline Opposition, pushed the issue with PNG. By May 2011 Pacific Islands Parliamentary Secretary Richard Marles, along with senior Immigration officials, were in PNG trying to nut out a deal to reopen the centre.
The problem was that no decisions were getting sorted while former PNG PM Michael Somare was absent, languishing for months in a Singapore Hospital after heart surgery.
All this changed when O'Neill's squad became impatient with this limbo and in a parliamentary coup rolled acting PM Sam Abal.
And late last week news came that the new PNG government would reopen the centre — but there are more problems ahead for Australia.
Resistance continues in the capital at least with Port Moresby Governor Powes Parkop, a former human rights lawyer, claiming the Manus Island deal is unconstitutional and could be challenged in court. "It's not right that Australia keeps on passing this problem to its neighbouring country, in PNG, and Nauru and now Malaysia," he told ABC Radio on Friday.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has also concerns over any agreement to reopen the Manus Island facility.
Earlier this year, ABC correspondent Liam Fox visited Manus and confirmed the facilities were run down, dilapidated and in need of more than a lick of paint. Costly repairs are going to have start as soon as possible if this recent momentum is to continue.
Such political expediency seems expensive when you look at the figures that all this fuss is about. The Australian's Mike Steketee brought some perspective to the issue by comparing Australia's arrivals to the number of illegal immigrants American receives, estimated 500,000 each year crossing the Mexican border.
"...This large flow does not throw the country into a panic — unlike the effect that 6500 asylum-seekers who come by boat had on Australia last year. Perhaps that says something about national self-confidence in both countries".
Steketee compares Australia's 15,226 boat arrivals in the last five years with Greece's 56,180, Italy's 91,821, Spain's 74,317 and Yemen's 185,810. It's clear though that logic and good sense are beside the point. Who wants a sensible debate when Australia is being invaded? Send them to Manus!
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