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Asylum contest ramps up

Mark Kenny analyses the current stalemate over asylum policy as the Coalition unveil 'operation sovereign borders', their militarised election pitch.

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has issued a scathing assessment of the Rudd government's plans to send all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to PNG.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill announced the deal last Friday, under which PNG would process asylum seekers who come to Australia and resettle those found to be refugees.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

PNG plan: Kevin Rudd. Photo: Andrew Meares

While PNG's cabinet was told that the Manus Island detention centre could eventually house 3000 asylum seekers, Mr Rudd stressed it would be open-ended.

A week after the announcement, the UNHCR issued a statement saying it was ''troubled'' by the current arrangements on Manus Island, and saying Labor's proposal raised ''very significant policy, legal and operational challenges''.

''UNHCR is troubled by the current absence of adequate protection standards and safeguards for asylum seekers and refugees in Papua New Guinea (PNG).  Australia's Regional Resettlement Arrangement (RRA) with the government of PNG raises serious, and so far unanswered, protection questions,'' the agency said.

Retired Rear Admiral Chris Barrie says the Coalition's military-led plan to combat boat arrival won't make a difference.

Retired Admiral Chris Barrie says the Coalition's military-led plan to combat boat arrival won't make a difference. Photo: Andrew Taylor

''UNHCR's assessment, based on recent visits to PNG, is that there are currently significant shortcomings in the legal framework for receiving and processing asylum-seekers from Australia. These include a lack of national capacity and expertise in processing, and poor physical conditions within open-ended, mandatory and arbitrary detention settings.

''While UNHCR understands that a number of these issues are being addressed, it is concerned at the prospect of further transfers taking place under the new RRA in the absence of appropriate protection guarantees and to what will remain temporary facilities on Manus Island for the foreseeable future.''

The agency also said asylum seekers sent to PNG would face ''formidable challenges'' integrating to PNG life.

''From UNHCR’s first-hand experience in supporting Melanesian and non-Melanesian refugees for nearly 30 years, it is clear that sustainable integration of non-Melanesian refugees in the socio-economic and cultural life of PNG will raise formidable challenges and protection questions.''

It said it shared the government's concerns about the risks to life associated with dangerous sea journeys, ''as a principle, UNHCR always advocates for countries to grant protection within their own territory, regardless of how they have arrived''.

Indonesia slams Rudd

In other developments, the ABC has reported that Indonesian politicians are unhappy about not being consulted by Mr Rudd before he announced his "hardline" deal to resettle asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea.

''The first thing that your country or the Prime Minister should contact is the minister of foreign affairs,'' said Tantowi Yahya, a member of Indonesia's Foreign Affairs Commission.

''And I've spoken with the minister a day after the announcement; he said he doesn't know anything about it.''

A spokesman for Senator Bob Carr said the Foreign Minister had given Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa a broad outline of the PNG policy on the Monday before the Friday announcement.

The spokesman told Fairfax Media that Senator Carr then rang Dr Natalegawa around the time of the announcement on Friday, to give him a detailed briefing. On the Friday, Senator Carr also rang the foreign ministers of other countries in the region, including Malaysia.

Last week, after Senator Carr's first briefing to Dr Natalegawa, Indonesia clamped down on Iranians entering the country – preventing them from obtaining a visa on arrival.

Australia had previously lobbied for tighter restrictions on the visas, which it argued were being used by asylum seekers who fly to Indonesia before travelling to Australia on boats.

'No anger in the navy'

The head of Australia’s navy has rejected claims there's growing anger among his officers over the Federal Government’s border protection policies.

Chief of Navy Ray Griggs was responding to media reports that navy personnel are being strained by the high number of boat arrivals and the grim task of plucking dead asylum seekers from the water.

''I reject very strongly the assertions that have been made that there is growing anger in the navy at the current government’s border protection policy,'' Vice-Admiral Griggs said in Canberra on Friday.

''This is simply not true.''

He acknowledged that some officers had their own personal views on the issue and might get frustrated from time to time.

''(But) they all understand what our job in the navy is,'' he said.

Officers are faced with ''enormous challenges in this relentless and gruelling operation where their actions and decisions face enormous scrutiny'', he said.

''They are certainly weary when they come off rotation and I do care deeply about the potential long-term impact of these activities on them.''

That's why the navy has in recent years developed a mental health surveillance and support program, the vice admiral said.

He said he wouldn’t be commenting directly on government or opposition policies on border protection.

Military-led policy won't work: former defence chief

Tony Abbott's military-led response to combat people smuggling is misguided policy and will change nothing, according to the chief of Australia's defence force under John Howard.

''I can't see it making any difference at all,'' said retired Admiral Chris Barrie when asked on ABC radio about the Opposition Leader's determination to appoint a three star military commander to ''stop the boats''.

Admiral Barrie's comments come as Labor and the Coalition continue to fight over which party will be toughest on border protection and who is most qualified to deter people smugglers.

Immigration Minister Tony Burke declared on Thursday that conditions on Manus Island are more than adequate and vowed to increase capacity to cover a surge in boat arrivals since the Prime Minister announced his Papua New Guinea solution.

Nine boats have arrived since the policy was announced, the latest on Tuesday carrying almost 100 asylum seekers, bringing to more than 700 the number of people waiting on Christmas Island to be transferred to PNG.

The political squabbling over Mr Rudd's asylum seeker policy has also heightened tensions with Mr O'Neill, who criticised Mr Abbott and Coalition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop over comments they made regarding aid to the country.

Mr Abbott's policy, which brands border protection a ''national emergency'' and suggests a military-led taskforce to attack the problem, risks politicising the military, Admiral Barrie said on Friday morning.

''[Asylum seekers] are not our enemy,'' he said.

''They're not attacking Australia . . . Defence is to deal with our enemies but Customs, policing and all the rest of it deal with people on internal security matters.''

Admiral Barrie was not convinced Mr Abbott's policy would change anything.

''It's still trying to solve the problem at the wrong end of the equation,'' he said.

''All we're going to do is just change the nature of the arrangements we've built in Canberra.''

Admiral Barrie's comments contradict the view of retired Major-General Jim Molan, who helped the Coalition design its new asylum seeker policy, branded "Operation Sovereign Borders".

''I don't think it's being militarised now,'' Major General Molan told the ABC on Thursday night.

''At the moment Border Protection Command conducts exactly the same operation as the Coalition is proposing,'' he said. ''A bigger and more effectively-controlled force will conduct in the future.''

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison has proposed that the military commander would have control over at least 12 government agencies. Such unprecedented power and oversight was needed for what Mr Morrison believes is the "biggest problem we've seen on our borders . . . in a very long while".

''I've looked at what we need to do to restore the policies that worked under John Howard,'' Mr Morrison told ABC television on Thursday night. ''It needs this type of an operational command structure to deliver it.''

Protesters greet Attorney-General

Federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus was greeted by protesters as he arrived to address a Melbourne conference on Friday morning.

About 30 members of the Refugee Action Collective gathered outside The Edge auditorium att Federation Square, where the Castan Centre for Human Rights law conference is being held.

The protesters did not enter the auditorium but shouted as Mr Dreyfus gave his address about 9am.

''We're here because Mark Dreyfus has vigorously defended the Labor Party policy of locking up refugees indefinitely in detention,'' spokeswoman Sue Bolton said.

''As a cabinet minister he's vigorously defended the Rudd Government's shameful Papua New Guinea refugee dumping plan.''

The protest ended when police told the Collective members to move on.     

with AAP

Correction: The earlier version of this story gave Chris Barrie's rank as Rear Admiral.

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