Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Interview with Rebecca Levingston – Mornings, ABC Radio Brisbane

Subjects: Immigration detention

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Kangaroo Point has become a pressure point over the detention of more than 100 men who sought asylum - were detained on Manus Island for seven years, now another year here at a Brisbane hotel.

Alan Tudge is the Acting Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs. Minister, good morning.

ALAN TUDGE: Good morning, Rebecca.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Is eight years an acceptable length of time to be detained?

ALAN TUDGE: Well, they haven't been detained for eight years. I mean, they've been in Nauru or PNG for the last five years and in that time, they are open facilities whereby they can participate in the community just like any other citizen of PNG or citizen of Nauru. So they can walk around, they can start businesses as many have, they can get jobs, they can get free healthcare, they've got free accommodation, and they operate pretty much like any other of the eight million PNGans or the 10,000 Nauruans.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: You make it sound almost like paradise, freedom. Why is your description so different to the people that have spoken to my audience?

ALAN TUDGE: Well, these are the facts - there haven't been detention facilities, as such, on PNG or Nauru since 2015. So people have been able to come and go from the accommodation facilities. Many have started businesses there, Rebecca, many have jobs there, they all have free healthcare there. And so if you're saying that those conditions are so appalling then you're also saying that we should be letting in all eight million PNGans into Australia.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: [Interrupts] Minister, that's a very strange, strong bow to pull. We're talking about 100 or so men that have been detained here in Brisbane, at a Kangaroo Point Hotel, who most certainly don't have the freedom to move about, to get a job, to see their family members at the moment.

ALAN TUDGE: No, they don't. They came in under the Medevac legislation about a year ago. This was legislation which the Labor and the Greens put through the parliament and we did not support. We did not support that.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Okay. I don't want to get into a political argument. I guess the bottom- the bottom line- the question is, Minister-

ALAN TUDGE: But you asked me, Rebecca, you asked me at the start why are they in detention? The only reason they have been in detention for the last 12 months, when they weren't for the previous four years, is because of the Labor and the Greens legislation which requires them to come to Australia, and that legislation requires them to be in the detention facilities.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Let me rephrase the question then. Why has it taken eight years to determine the future of these men? Because, at the moment, they still have to adhere to the directives of the Australian Government.

ALAN TUDGE: For many of these people they have had their refugee status determined, and they have been determined to be a refugee, and they have refuge on PNG or on Nauru. Some of them also have the opportunity to go to the United States, but in many cases they don't want to take up those opportunities and they would prefer to come to Australia.

Now, I don't blame anybody for wanting to come to Australia - we live in the greatest country in the world. But they were seeking refuge and they have refuge in PNG or in Nauru, and indeed some of them have an opportunity to go to the United States as well.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: When you say refuge, so, are you saying they have complete freedom to live in Nauru as any other citizen?

ALAN TUDGE: Well so, if you're in Nauru or in PNG they're not - and this is often a misnomer that people put forward, that they’re detention facilities as such, that they're somehow locked up behind barbed wire - that's not the case. Since 2015…

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: [talks over] If they're free - I guess, if they're free to go though, why is the Australian Government still paying for their accommodation?

ALAN TUDGE: So, because in part, because they arrived on Australian shores back in the Rudd-era when the boats were arriving there in the hundreds, we always said that they - people would not settle in Australia so that they were being processed in PNG or in Nauru.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Okay. But if they've been processed, they've been granted refugee status - you painted that picture of freedom to live, to work, to start a business - why is the government still footing the bill for them at all?

ALAN TUDGE: Well, we're footing the bill for some of their accommodation expenses in PNG and some of their health expenses in PNG until they decide for themselves that they want to fully settle either in PNG, in Nauru; if they haven't got a refugee determination status, then to return to their home country; or indeed to return to the United States when that option is available to them.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: How much does that cost?

ALAN TUDGE: I don't have the answer to that question, I'm happy to follow up though.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: It's a pretty key figure, given that this is an issue that has dominated, certainly, local news - maybe not for you, although I have been trying to reach your office for a couple of days. Do you have a figure on how much it costs to detain someone? Or to accommodate someone in, say, Manus Island?

ALAN TUDGE: I don't have that figure, I'm very happy to get it for you though. But these things - these things aren't always…

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: [Talks over] Can I put to you that a 2016…

ALAN TUDGE:… and they're certainly not cheap in terms of having them detained in Australia either.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: According to a 2016 National Audit Office report called Offshore Processing Centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea the cost per person, per year is $573,000.

ALAN TUDGE: And they're not detention facilities as such anymore - in fact they're, as I said, open accommodation facilities.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Alan Tudge is the Acting Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs. You are listening to ABC Radio Brisbane, my name's Rebecca Levingston.

How many men have been moved to the Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation Centre?

ALAN TUDGE: There's about 100 in the Brisbane Centre at the - sorry, in the Kangaroo Point Centre, there's about 100 men there at the moment.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Why have they been moved?

ALAN TUDGE: Why are they being moved?


ALAN TUDGE: Those are decisions from the Australian Border Force Commissioner. So they're operational decisions and typically they're taking into account the health of the individuals, the risks to them or other detainees, sometimes the risk to the staff, and that might be why they get moved to a different facility.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: That, based on conversations I've had with individuals who have been based at Kangaroo Point, they think they're being punished for speaking to the media. Are they being punished?

ALAN TUDGE: Well, that's not the case. Absolutely not the case. They're not prevented from speaking to the media, I know that they've spoken on your program, and they're certainly not being punished for speaking to the media. These are decisions from the Australian Border Force Commissioner, they're operational decisions. The elected people, myself, I have nothing to do with these decisions.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Some families, Minister, are split. A mother and child in community detention, a gentleman Saif who has been based at Kangaroo Point; distressed, understandably, hasn't been able to hug his infant son for four months. What do you think of that situation?

ALAN TUDGE: No one wants to be split from their families, Rebecca, absolutely not. In this situation, I'd imagine, and I don't know the particular cases, but anybody who's come across through the Medevac legislation has been placed into these detention facilities in Brisbane. So, the rest of the family, presumably came out to Australia previously on a previous boat, so they'd already decided, in some respects, to split the family.

Now, as I said, that's- no one wants to be split from their family, but that would be the explanation for it. Because anybody who's come out under the Medevac legislation - which we do not support – is in those facilities.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Minister, finally, what's the plan going forward, what's going to happen to these hundred or so men now split between Kangaroo Point and Pinkenba, other individuals I understand in Melbourne in similar circumstances? Eight years now, the Federal Government has been footing that bill which, I think, even though you don't know the figure, would be multi millions of dollars. What is the plan for these people?

ALAN TUDGE: Well, first up, as you know, we have got a very strict border protection regime in place so that the boats are no longer coming. Now, that makes it much, much more affordable for Australia when the boats aren't coming, and we're going to insist on that tough border protection regime, it's particularly important actually to have strong borders during the COVID - in the COVID situation. I think second, in relation to the options which are available for the 100 people at Kangaroo Point, they can return to Manus and Nauru - Manus and PNG - sorry, to PNG or Nauru, they can take up the option to go the United States when that option is given to them. Or if they're not…

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: [Talks over] And when might that be?

ALAN TUDGE:…haven't got a refugee status. They can exercise those options immediately.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: You're saying that the detainees can go to America immediately?

ALAN TUDGE: Some of them do have that option to go to America, and they have been given that option. So, this is - there's a lot of misinformation put out there, Rebecca, about detention facilities, by activists. Let's be very clear about this. They are Green and Labor activists who have one objective in mind, and that is to ensure that no one is in detention facilities, and effectively, to reopen our borders which is what we had in the past. And these activists who are protesting at the moment, they do no favour to those people in the Kangaroo Point facility. To the contrary, do you know that we've had to take out some of the health professionals from that facility, because they have been at risk, the health professionals? So these protesters are actually putting at greater risk these detainees, the very people who they say they care about.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Well, Minister, can I say that it's taken multiple phone calls to multiple departments to get some clarity, some communication from a Federal Government level which, as you know, goes a long way to answering some of those questions. I very much appreciate you taking the time this morning.

ALAN TUDGE: The Department will also provide, and they have a media outlet as well, they can provide you with the facts. And so-

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: [Interrupts] It's very different to having the Immigration Minister on the program explaining the circumstances. I very much appreciate you taking the time this morning, thanks so much.

ALAN TUDGE: Thanks very much, Rebecca.