Transcript of joint press conference, Canberra
SAT 07 MAY 2011
Subject(s): Regional Cooperation Framework; Manus Island
PM: When I became Prime Minister I made clear the Australian Government’s views and priorities when it came to people smuggling and asylum seekers. I made it very clear that what I wanted to do was to break the back of the people smuggling model, to take away from them the very product that they sell, to stop people risking their lives at sea and to stop people profiting from human misery. I wanted to see us do something to end the profitability of people smuggling.
Now I’m a migrant myself, and I’ve always believed in an orderly migration program for this nation. Certainly that’s been my personal experience here in Australia, coming to this land and respecting its laws.
As Prime Minister I won’t tolerate people smugglers attempting to bend and break the will of the Government to protect our borders and also our will to do the right thing as a country and to provide safe haven for those in need.
So I’ve always that we wanted to work to take away the product that people smugglers sell, and I made clear when I became Prime Minister that there was only one way to do that, and that was through a regional solution to a regional problem. Without a regional approach all other efforts end up coming to nought; without a regional framework, through the Bali Process, there’s no long term solution to this problem.
Now I’ve made it clear that this was all not going to happen overnight, that it was something that was going to have to be worked on. I said that when I first spoke to the Australian people as Prime Minister about people smuggling; that it was something that would require patient and methodical work in the months since.
Now we have been doing that patient and methodical work, and at Bali in March we secured the agreement of all countries to a Regional Cooperation Framework. We said that we would work to implement that framework through bilateral agreements with other interested countries in the region. That agreement was an important step in forming the Government’s approach and building a regional approach.
Today I’m in a position to make another important announcement about the Government’s next step in tackling people smuggling. Now this won’t be the last step but it is an important step and it will be a big blow to those who are involved in the evil trade of people smuggling.
Today I’m very pleased to be jointly announcing, with the Prime Minister of Malaysia, an innovative agreement on asylum seekers and transfer. It is a commitment to enter into a groundbreaking new bilateral agreement on irregular migration. Now this agreement, which will be concluded under the Regional Cooperation Framework agreed to at the Bali Process Ministerial conference in March is innovative, it’s squarely aimed at the people smuggling business model.
From the time that the agreement comes into effect, 800 people seeking to come to Australia by boat, hoping to have their claims processed in Australia, hoping to end up resettled in Australia, will be taken to Malaysia instead.
Those individuals will have their claims to refugee status assessed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and will be subject to those general processes of UNHCR.
Importantly this 800 will not receive any preferential treatment in terms of processing their claims.
So I want to be very clear about this, very clear about what this agreement means. Under this arrangement if someone seeks to come to Australia then they are at risk of going to Malaysia and going to the back of the queue – that’s what it means.
It means that if anybody comes here under this arrangement in the expectation that they will be able to have their claims processed here and look to resettlement in Australia, then they will be wrong. They will not be able to assume that they will end up in Australia.
Now this is a very important message, it’s a key message to people smugglers and to the people that they try to entice to get on boats, and the message is a very clear one. Under this arrangement, don’t get on that boat, what it will mean is you’ve given your money to a people smuggler, you’ve risked your life at sea and you will be at real risk of ending up in Malaysia instead.
Now Malaysia of course is a country that already hosts a large number of refugees. So in return for taking the 800 we want to assist Malaysia by taking genuine refugees already residing in Malaysia. We will take 4000 of them. That is for every irregular arrival seeking to come to Australia, transferred to Malaysia, we will take 5 genuine refugees from Malaysia. Now that’s 4000 places in addition to our current humanitarian quota, so they are new places for refugees currently processed and in Malaysia.
These places will not be open to the people transferred who were seeking to come to Australia.
So this is the clearest possible message that we are prepared to accept people in need of protection, but that no one should be able to subvert the orderly migration programs that Australia runs and buy their way into Australia.
This arrangement is also a genuine cooperation arrangement in our region under the Regional Cooperation Framework. Now there’s been a lot of discussion about this arrangement between Australia and Malaysia, that work has happened over many months, it began in October last year.
I want to take this opportunity to thank the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib, for working with Australia and I want to thank him for co-authoring the joint statement being released between him and I today as Prime Ministers of our respective nations.
Our relevant Ministers and senior officials will conclude a memorandum of understanding to bring this agreement into effect in the near future.
Now I want to take this opportunity too to say something about our plans for a regional processing centre.
In July last year I made it clear we were committed to a sustainable regional protection framework based on genuine regional cooperation, and I made it clear that we wanted to build a regional processing centre in another nation in our region, a nation that at the time most likely to be East Timor. As has become increasingly clear, it is unlikely that East Timor will end up hosting such a centre. So for some time we’ve been investigating alternative options including Papua New Guinea. We’ve been exploring with PNG the possibility for an assessment centre to be based there.
Now if this proceeds it’s my expectation that it would start as an assessment centre but it would be one step towards creating a regional processing centre. Those discussions with Papua New Guinea are continuing.
Now I understand that there are some in the community who may have some concerns and may have some concerns particularly thinking that this is something like the pacific solution. To them I would say this is a very different approach. The pacific solution under the Howard Government was a unilateral Australian approach, in contrast this solution has been borne of a regional process motivated by the region’s desire to tackle this regional challenge and as I made clear last year when I first spoke on this matter as Prime Minister, this is a challenge that requires a regional solution. At Bali earlier this year we made a major breakthrough with the regional protection framework and that framework did outline having bilateral agreements and I’m pleased that I’m able today to join with the Prime Minister of Malaysia in detailing our approach to one such agreement. Both Malaysia and PNG have been part of the Bali Process.
Now this set of decisions made by the Government is all about having an orderly migration system, one that’s run by the Government and not by people smugglers. I know and I share the anxiety that Australians feel when they see irregular arrivals by boat and they see disturbances in detention centres, and I know that this can place strains on the support that people otherwise feel for migration in this country. But I also believe Australians are a generous people and we want to help those who are in real need, facing real threats and who are genuine refugees.
We’ve been a generous country in the past over our history, over many decades resettling people who were fleeing persecution and of course I believe we will continue to do that over the years to come.
That’s one reason why I as Prime Minister and the Government is prepared to add 4000 places to out humanitarian intake.
But while we are all hospitable people and whilst Australia as a nation wants to honour our international obligations I do also want to say to all people in the region: do not underestimate the resolve of this Government to break the people smuggling business model, we do not want to see people trading in human misery. We want to remove the incentive for people to get on a boat.
Now the measure that I’ve spoke about today will strengthen Australia’s borders, it will be a big blow to people smugglers. Nevertheless this is a complex challenge, I’ve always said that, I said it when I first spoke about these challenges as Prime Minister, and there are no quick fixes. I do want to say, to conclude, by revisiting some of the things I said in July last year.
At that stage I asked the Australian people for patience and understanding as we undertook efforts to deal with this complex problem. Now at times my patience and I think the patience of the Australian public has been tested since. I think my patience and the patience of the Australian public has been particularly tested when people have seen the recent disturbances at detention centres. I can understand why people have been angry seeing those disturbances, I’ve been angry seeing those disturbances at detention centres. This is happening in defiance of our laws and causing destruction of Government property.
While today’s announcement is a step forward, I do want to say there are no easy fixes but we will continue working and building on the framework that we entered into at Bali and on the measure that I’ve announced today.
I also want to say something I said to the nation last July about the impasse that the political debate in this country has reached. There is now an imagery out there that if you’re hard headed you’re hard hearted, and alternatively there’s an imagery that if you’re soft hearted that somehow you are also soft of border protection. This simplistic political stereotyping and the three word slogans that come with it aren’t the right way forward for our political debate.
You can be very hard headed about the best way to protect our borders while still being very generous of heart to people who need Australia’s assistance and that is my view at that is the Government’s view. It’s our responsibility as a Government and as a nation to do what we can to stop people risking a journey at sea that can cost lives. At the same time, it’s our responsibility as a Government and as a nation to provide protection for those who genuinely need it and it’s our responsibility as a Government and as a nation to protect our borders and we intend to continue doing just that.
I’ll turn now to Minister Bowen for some comments and before I do I’d like to say that Chris Bowen has worked extraordinarily hard on the arrangement with Malaysia as well as discussions generally in our region, I thank him for that and I’ll turn to him now for some comments.
MINISTER BOWEN: Thank you very much Prime Minister. Well this is a very significant announcement, the announcement of a commitment to reach a bilateral agreement between Malaysia and Australia. This is an agreement which will break the people smugglers’ business model, at the same time it’s an agreement which means Australia increases its humanitarian intake. Our humanitarian intake will now be the highest it has been since 1996 when the Labor Party was last in office.
As the Prime Minister said, Prime Ministers have agreed that 800 arrivals, irregular boats arrivals to Australia will be transferred to Malaysia for processing. These will be people who arrived at an offshore excised place in keeping with the current Australian law. In return, Australia will settle over the next 4 years 4000 refugees from Malaysia. This will mean that our humanitarian intake increases from 13,750 a year to 14,750 a year.
What this means is that people smugglers will need to find 800 volunteers, 800 volunteers to travel to Australia, to pay the money, to take the risk, to get a plane ticket to Malaysia from Australia. People smugglers will no longer have the ability to sell a guarantee of being processed and resettled in Australia if you’re a genuine refugee. At the same time, Australia will play more of a role in assisting our regional partners and friends, in particular Malaysia, in dealing with the challenges of irregular migration and asylum seekers in our region.
As the Prime Minister said this has been work going on for a long time, methodically and carefully negotiated with Malaysia. I’d like to thank my colleague, the Malaysian Minister for Home Affairs Dato' Seri Hishammuddin bin Tun Hussein for his cooperation and his very constructive engagement over the last six months in reaching this agreement and making a recommendation to our respective Prime Ministers and Cabinets to endorse this agreement.
There is some more work to be done on implementation details and operationalising this agreement; that will occur over the coming weeks.
Our message is clear, there’s no point in travelling to Australia by boat if you are seeking a guaranteed outcome because we will no longer provide that outcome. From today onwards – fair warning – you do not have a guarantee of being processed and resettled in Australia as a result of our bilateral discussions across the region with Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and others.
In relation to the cost of this agreement, the cost over the forward estimates of increasing our humanitarian intake will be $216 million, the operational costs will be $76 million over the forward estimates. The total cost for $292 million over the forward estimates.
Now I know this will be controversial, I expect protests, I expect legal challenges, I expect resistance. As the Prime Minister said nobody should doubt our resolve to break the people smugglers’ business model, nobody should doubt our resolve to implement this agreement and to further discussions with other nations across our region to make sure that the message is clear to people smugglers. People are not a commodity, freedom is not something which you can trade, we will have an orderly migration program, a humanitarian migration program, but one which achieves our international obligations in an orderly fashion.
Again I’d like to thank of course the Prime Minister for her support in negotiating and settling these agreements over several months, my Malaysian colleague and the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration have also been consulted in recent times and who will be participating in this agreement with Malaysia, a bilateral agreement but with the participation of various international organisations.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, how will you judge whether this has been a success, do you expect that the number of boat arrivals that come to Australia will go down and what will you say to people who say, ‘well this sounds like a bit of a refugee merry-go-round, they come here, we fly them to Malaysia, Malaysia flies 4000 back’?
PM: Well firstly I do expect this to have an impact, I expect that to take some time, but I do expect it to have an impact because this is a very hard blow into the people smugglers. You’ve got to put yourself in the position of the people who are there, asylum seekers, who are having people smugglers try and sell them a product, and the people smugglers go to them and say ‘give me your money, I’ll get you on a boat, I’ll get you to Australia and if your claim is processed you will get to stay.’ Under this arrangement, what will be the truth and we’ll make sure the truth gets through in the region, the truth is if you spend your money, you get on a boat, you risk your life, you don’t get to stay, you go to Malaysia, and you go to the back of the queue. We will take people from the front of the queue, people who are already in Malaysia and already processed as refugees.
JOURNALIST: The figures here are over four years, is this a four year agreement or is it ongoing and if there’s work to be done when do you expect to sign the actual deal?
PM: Well we will be working to finalise the agreement over the coming weeks, the increase of 4000 is over four years, that’s right.
JOURNALIST: So the agreement with Malaysia will only last four years, is that-
PM: Well this is an agreement, 800 for 4000 and the 4000 will be received over four years.
JOURNALIST: And what happens when 800 people have come here and they’ve sent to Malaysia?
PM: Well the aim of this is to break the people smugglers’ products, to take out of their hands the very product that they sell. When they go and try and ply their evil trade, the message will be received by asylum seekers ‘if I get on a boat, the risk I’ve got is that I blow all of my money, risk my life, and end up at the back of the queue in Malaysia’ that is the force of this. Now we will finalise this agreement with Malaysia, we will implement this agreement, as the Minister says it won’t be easy, there will be resistance, but we will implement this agreement. Of course we will see the impact that this has and if there’s a need for further discussions and dialogue down the track then we will have that further discussion and dialogue, but this is an important step. We last took an important step forward in March at Bali when there was agreement to the regional framework, this is the next important step, this innovative arrangement to break the people smugglers’ model, their business model, and to take out of their hands the very thing that they sell to people.
JOURNALIST: So you don’t think there will be 800 volunteers willing to give it a shot anyway?
PM: Well do you think you would, you think you would? Sitting in Indonesia, you’ve only got one shot, you’ve only got so much money, you’ve only got one shot, so much money, you’ve only got one life to lose. And you do all your money, your one shot, do all your money, your one shot, potentially you lose your life and go to the back of the queue in Malaysia. I’ll allow you to calculate those odds and see what the rational human conclusion is.
JOURNALIST: (inaudible) Malaysia, will everybody who you pick up in our waters go to Malaysia or will some go to PNG, will some go to Christmas Island, how will it work?
PM: Well we’ll make operational decisions in the circumstances but the message for people who are thinking of getting on a boat is that they are running a very, very real risk that what they get for giving their money to a people smuggler is a plane trip to Malaysia and a spot at the back of the queue.
JOURNALIST: But Prime Minister, based on the number of people coming at the moment, if you’re only sending 250 people a year to Malaysia, that’s less-
PM: No sorry that’s not right, let’s correct that. So it’s 800, not over time, just 800 to be used as we want to use them. The 4000 we are receiving the other way will come over 4 years.
JOURNALIST: So it’ll be the next 800 to arrive.
PM: Well we will finalise the agreement and then of course we will make some operational decisions but we would be looking at the 800 people coming after the agreement is finalised. But the message from today is, because we are working on this agreement, because we are continuing to work on regional solutions, because we are continuing to have bilateral discussions, the message for people contemplating trying to make a journey to Australia is that they are at a very real risk that they don’t have their claim processed here and they don’t get to be resettled here. I’ll just get the Minister too to address that point about the timing of the 800.
BOWEN: Yes thank you Prime Minister. The 800 is a flat figure, not over a period of time, it would certainly be our intention that after the signing of the final agreement with Malaysia that from that time forward people could work under the assumption that if they are in the next 800 the chances would be that they would be transferred to Malaysia for processing. The 4000 will be taken in conjunction with the UNHCR over the next 4 years.
JOURNALIST: (inaudible) whether 800-
BOWEN: Correct, the 4000 is a clear commitment.
JOURNALIST: And do you know where those people are from, the genuine refugees?
BOWEN: There’s about 92,000 people on the books in Malaysia as asylum seekers, they of course come from a range of countries around the world; Burma is very strongly represented in that group.
JOURNALIST: Are you seeking to make similar agreements with other countries?
BOWEN: Well I think this agreement does show the potential of bilateral arrangements under the Bali Process but clearly our focus has been on Malaysia and certainly we are happy to talk to any other country in our region as a result of the Bali Process but our focus has been Malaysia and that’s the agreement we’ve reached.
JOURNALIST: Minister Bowen (inaudible) going to lift the refugee (inaudible) thousand-
BOWEN: 750 correct-
JOURNALIST: A year, so 14,700 but then 800 might go to Malaysia, some people would still say the odds there aren’t too bad, that it would be worth-
PM: You’ve got to be really careful about the cohort here. The 800 do not count on our humanitarian intake, they don’t get processed, they don’t get to come here, so that 800 doesn’t count.
JOURNALIST: You’re still accepting 14,000 (inaudible)
PM: Yep but you’ve got the 800 going back to Malaysia, they do not count on our humanitarian intake, they don’t get processed here, they get no preferential agreement and they will not be in the 4000 we take from Malaysia, they go to the back of the queue in Malaysia. Then of course we will continue to do what we do, which is take genuine refugees from around the world and we will add onto that these 4000 new places from Malaysia.
JOURNALIST: Minister Bowen how do you decide, because presumably you’re not going to get 800, send them all back and then show’s over, you’re going to pick and choose, they’re going to stick around on Christmas Island ‘till Malaysia says they’ll take them back-
PM: They don’t stick around on Christmas Island, they’ll be straight back.
BOWEN: That’s right, they’d be returned to Malaysia immediately once this agreement is functional.
JOURNALIST: By the Navy?
BOWEN: By operational decisions will be taken at the time whether to transfer them by boat or by plane et cetera.
JOURNALIST: (inaudible) between now and the agreement being operational that that will act as a pull factor that people want to get in now rather than-
BOWEN: Well let us be very clear, from this day forward there is no guarantee of being processed in Australia and being resettled in Australia. It is the case that the 800 will be transferred after the agreement is signed and it will apply to people who apply after the agreement is signed, but we’re making it very clear that the correct assumption that people have made up until now that they arrive in Australia, they’ll be processed in Australia and resettled in Australia if they were genuine refugees no longer applies.
JOURNALIST: The 85 that arrived today?
PM: No this is from this announcement forward.
JOURNALIST: So based on the current rate of arrivals, how long do you think it will be until that 800 quota is used up?
PM: Well can I just say I think perhaps people need to think about the impact of this on the business model of people smugglers, the proposition people smugglers would end up trying to persuade people of is it’s worth risking their life at sea, spending a lot of money with a real risk that all you get for it is at the back of the queue in Malaysia where, as you’ve just heard from the Minister, there are tens and tens of thousands of genuine refugees already processed and already waiting resettlement. That’s why this system is a powerful blow to the very business model of people smugglers and just in terms of Sam’s form of words before, these 800 do not come into Australian immigration detention, they are intercepted and taken to Malaysia.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you say genuine refugees, but most people who come to Australia are accepted as refugees. Aren’t they genuine?
PM: Well we want to break the back of the people smugglers’ model, we don’t want people profiting on human misery, and that’s why we’re taking this step, why we’ve announced to today, jointly, I’ve announced today with the Prime Minister of Malaysia, this commitment to an agreement that would hit so hard the people smugglers’ business model.
JOURNALIST: (inaudible) the 4000 we take from Malaysia, do they then go to detention centres for processing, presumably we have to check their-
BOWEN: No, we would process them in Malaysia and admit them as permanent residents once they’re processed.
JOURNALIST: So they turn up and they’re immediately on a permanent visa-
BOWEN: Correct, they’d get a protection visa just as the people we resettle from camps and settlements around the world, whether they be in Asia or Middle-East, the same rules would apply.
JOURNALIST: If you get the PNG centre going, would the people dealt with that had initially been just an Australian centre, would the people there be processed by Australian officials or international officials?
PM: Well we are working through with PNG but if we succeeded in entering an arrangement with PNG, and we are having constructive discussions, but such an arrangement would be for an assessment centre, if would be staffed by Australian officials and I would view it as a step towards a regional processing centre which I have discussed in the region and with the Australian people since I first became Prime Minister and gave my first speech on the matter.
JOURNALIST: Those Australian officials would do the processing?
PM: Obviously discussions are continuing with PNG, but the basis of those discussions is that we would create an assessment centre and yes it would be staffed by Australian officials. I would view that as a first and important step towards a regional processing centre.
JOURNALIST: (inaudible) involved in those negotiations with PNG, have you spoken to the Prime Minister?
PM: Yes, I saw a newspaper report this morning, which I presume you’re basing your question on, which was wrong.
JOURNALIST: You’re talking about a queue in Malaysia, how confident are you that that’s an orderly queue, that it will work?
PM: Well I might get Chris to talk about how that has been processed.
BOWEN: We will be working with the UNHCR and the Malaysian Government to identify the 4000 people who would be processed for settlement in Australia, just as we do with the UNHCR and governments around the world, as I say, at the various camps around the world where there are significant numbers of asylum seekers awaiting resettlement elsewhere in the world. So we would go through the applications and the UNHCR would mandate people and they would be referred to Australia for resettlement just as they are around the world, there’s a small number who currently go through that process in Malaysia, we are very significantly increasing that number.
JOURNALIST: (inaudible) asylum seeker arrives, or make their way to Australia be intercepted tomorrow morning, be placed in Australian detention and then get sent to Malaysia once this deal is done?
BOWEN: No, the situation is that we will be transferring people to Malaysia who arrive after the finalisation of the agreements with Malaysia, but what we’re saying is this agreement, other agreements we are discussing and pursuing across the region, make it very clear if you’re a people smuggler selling the product of guaranteed processing and settlement in Australia you cannot do so and you can not to that from today and we will be spreading that message throughout the places that people gather to consider coming to Australia, and we will be spreading that message from today.
JOURNALIST: You said you expect challenges, what do you think is most likely to be challenged in this deal?
BOWEN: Well look having been Immigration Minister for six months I’ve learnt that the Immigration Minister is the most litigated person in the country and I expect that to apply to this arrangement as well. I would expect that lawyers will be challenging this arrangement.
JOURNALIST: Which element?
BOWEN: Well that’s a matter for them, I’m not in the business of giving them legal advice, I’m just making the point that nobody should underestimate our resolve.
JOURNALIST: Will this (inaudible) require legislation?
BOWEN: No it does not.
JOURNALIST: And who picks the 4000 in Malaysia, who get the lucky Australian visas?
BOWEN: The Australian Government in consultation with the UNHCR, in the same way that we do across the world, we take people who have particularly compelling cases who may have been waiting a long time for resettlement and who are regarded as being genuine refugees mandated by the UNHCR. There are 43 million displaced people around the world; Australia obviously has to prioritise our intake by we are doing this in conjunction with UNHCR in Malaysia as we do around the world.
JOURNALIST: What kind of facility with the 800 go to in Malaysia?
BOWEN: They would be detained for a short period of time, it has been the basis of discussions with the Malaysian Government, and then they would enter more broadly into the Malaysian community, but that would be something for those further details to be decided.
JOURNALIST: Do you have any indication whether that’s a, you haven’t checked whether that’s a facility that would be up to Australian standards under-
BOWEN: Certainly there’s been discussions about them being processed for a short period of time in existing Malaysian infrastructure, but the discussions have been that they would then of course, and in terms of the agreement between the two Prime Ministers and I quote ‘be treated with dignity and humanity.’
JOURNALIST: Won’t the disincentive only last though until that 800 quota is filled and based on the current rate of arrivals is only a fairly short period?
PM: You’re assuming that there are 800 people who volunteer to take that risk of going to the back of the queue in Malaysia.
JOURNALIST: So Tony Abbott might ask ‘will this stop the boats?’
PM: Well you should ask Tony Abbott has he ever had a policy to back his slogan in.
Thanks very much.