December 12, 2013
PAPUA New Guinea has committed to begin processing asylum-seekers held on Manus Island after February next year, as Australia pledged to focus its $500 million PNG aid program on nation-building infrastructure rather than grassroots health and education projects.
In Canberra today, PNG Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato played down reports of poor conditions for asylum-seekers at Australia’s Manus Island detention centre and said concerns among locals about the whereabouts of promised funding for the facility were being addressed.
He said PNG still had to put in place a policy and legislative framework before any of the 1100 asylum-seekers held on Manus Island could be processed.
But he said processing would commence soon after required constitutional changes came into effect in February.
“I can assure you that things will take place relatively smoothly and very fast,” Mr Pato said.
He also recommitted to settling those who gained refugee status, as promised under PNG’s initial deal with the former Labor government.
“That’s the agreement we have with the Australian government,” he said.
Seventeen ministers from Australia and PNG met today for an annual ministerial forum between the two countries.
They agreed Australian aid should be targeted at areas “where Australian expertise can have an impact on sustainable economic growth”.
It would focus on private sector-led projects and be subject to “clear performance benchmarks”.
Ms Bishop said Australia wanted to ensure its aid to PNG went towards developing a sustainable economy.
“We want to move away from direct service delivery, like medicines and school books – that’s the responsibility of the PNG government,” she said.
“I think this is a recognition of the growing accountability of the PNG government for the welfare of its own people, and also the maturity of the relationship between Australia and PNG.
“The PNG government wants to take primary responsibility for the care of its own citizens as any sovereign government would wish to.”
The shift in the focus of Australia’s PNG aid program was initiated by Labor following its deal with the PNG government to reopen the Manus Island detention centre.
Mr Pato said reports of poor sanitation and lack of drinking water at the centre were “out of date” and the facility was “pretty good”.
He said Manus Island locals had wanted to learn how $42 million committed by Australia to establish the establish the centre had been spent.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison had provided a statement of where the money had gone, Mr Pato said.
The PNG constitution was amended to exempt asylum-seekers from a guarantee of personal liberty unless a person is charged with a criminal offence.
Mr Pato rejected suggestions those held on Manus Island were subject to arbitrary detention.
“We haven’t done anything which is illegal or in terms of anything that is a breach of international law or domestic legislation,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ms Bishop confirmed she had offered PNG similar assurances over Australia’s intelligence activities as had been provided to Indonesia, following disclosures by US fugitive Edward Snowden.
“The Australian government will not use our resources, including intelligence resources, (in a way) that would in any way harm PNG,” she said.