JOURNALIST: Nauru's Government is promising to process all 600 asylum seekers in its detention centre within the next week and from today it becomes an open facility, 24 hours a day. That means detainees will be free to move around the island.
But questions are being asked about whether the change will actually improve conditions and safety for asylum seekers and refugees.
DAVID MANNE, EXEC. DIR., REFUGEE & IMM. LEGAL CENTRE: What I can say is that none of these moves does anything in the end to address the fundamental issue at stake, and that is: what is going to happen to refugees in the future and how are they going to be able to rebuild their lives safely and with dignity? Because what we know here is that settling people in Nauru is not a long-term or permanent option. People who are settled in Nauru as refugees are only there temporarily and it is a country that does not have the capacity to provide protection to refugees on an ongoing basis.
JOURNALIST: There have been a number of allegations of corrupt behaviour and physical and sexual assaults both within Nauru's detention centre and outside it.
A Senate inquiry in August heard evidence of 67 allegations of child abuse. 33 asylum seekers have claimed they've been raped or sexually assaulted at the centre.
The timing of the Nauruan announcement is curious given that in a couple of days, the full bench of the High Court is due to hear a challenge to the legality of the Federal Government's role in offshore detention.
Last week, Lateline explored the case of Syrian man, Eyad. He was detained on Manus Island and encouraged by Australian authorities to return to his home in the middle of a warzone. In a phone call through an interpreter, Eyad said he was jailed and tortured immediately on his return.
INTERPRETER: "I was worried when I get to Syria to be killed or put in jail. And this is what happened when I - as soon as get to Damascus, I was put 20 days in jail."
Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, Ken Roth, says conditions in offshore detention facilities operated by Australia were so appalling, some people were willing to risk their lives to return home.
KEN ROTH, EXEC. DIR., HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: Of course you get this kind of despair. I think it's dishonest though for us to pretend that somebody chooses in those circumstances to return home. They leave in utter lack of hope. There's just nothing to live for on Manus, so they risk their lives back in Syria.
JOURNALIST: Minister Peter Dutton is our guest tonight and he's with me here in the studio.
Thanks, Minister, for joining us.
PETER DUTTON: Thanks, Emma.
JOURNALIST: Can you explain the timing of this announcement for us?
Six hundred asylum seekers can now suddenly be processed within a week. What's been going on the last two or three years?
PETER DUTTON: Well I think people need to understand that that processing has been taking place for some period of time and obviously the Nauruan Government announces today that they in the final stages of polishing off, if you like, the way in which they have analysed and assessed those claims and they'll make that public once they've finalised all of that detail.
But they've been working on them for some time, working to a particular point with all of them and obviously now they've decided that they can conclude their deliberations and they'll make an announcement accordingly.
JOURNALIST: People have been locked up for over three years on Nauru and less than two days before the highest court in the country assesses the lawfulness of that detention and Australia's role in it, the gates suddenly fly open. Is that just a remarkable coincidence?
PETER DUTTON: Well again, I think you need to deal with the facts in this case. So, already there was an open centre arrangement between the hours of 9am and 9pm. There had been originally an open centre arrangement between the hours of 9 am and 5pm.
So this has happened progressively over a long period of time and the idea is to make sure that people can get out into the community, but that they can return to the centre with a curfew. But the Narauan Government now has made a decision that they will have that open centre arrangement 24 hours a day.
So it's worked progressively to the announcement today. So it's not just an announcement 48 hours, as you say, before a court case.
The other point that I'd make is that there are High Court cases going on all the time between advocates and the Federal Government, between advocates and other parties and these matters continue to roll through the courts.
JOURNALIST: This is a test case though this week?
PETER DUTTON: This is a test case and there are others obviously that have preceded it and there'll be others that will follow it and the court will make its deliberations, they'll look at all the facts ... [interrupted]
JOURNALIST: They haven't actually - pardon me for the interruption, but there haven't been any that have preceded it that have actually argued the case of whether the Australians - whether the Australian Government's role in funding and participating in these offshore detention centres has constitutional validity.
PETER DUTTON: Well, there are issues obviously that have been tested by the courts in a number of areas, but the case this week, M68 so-called, looks at specific aspects, and as I say, that'll be decided by the courts as it should be.
JOURNALIST: So, a month after the High Court case was launched, a retrospective law was passed to allow Australia to participate in and fund the detention of innocent people overseas.
Now asylum seekers on Nauru are let free, but you're saying it's got nothing to do with the fact that the constitutional validity will be tested this week and any potential adverse finding.
PETER DUTTON: Well the Labor Party supported the Coalition in the legislation that we had before the Parliament.
JOURNALIST: That wasn't a political question; it was just a question.
PETER DUTTON: Well it was a question about legislation and just to make the point that it was a bipartisan approach, because of course, regional processing is supported by both the Labor Government and the Liberal Party in government.
JOURNALIST: But the test is whether the Government has the constitutional right to fund and participate in the offshore detention of innocent people.
PETER DUTTON: Well there are legislative aspects and there are constitutional aspects and the High Court will deal with those aspects as they see fit.
In relation to the funding arrangements, we thought it prudent to pass legislation and we did that with the support of the Labor Party, and as I say, regardless of the outcome at the next election or the election after that or the election after that, the policy today of both parties is to have regional processing because it has been a part of us being able to stop drownings at sea.
We've not seen a successful people smuggling operation for some time now and the last thing that I want to do is to reopen detention centres either here on the mainland or to see places filled again on Nauru or Manus as people leave.
JOURNALIST: Is Nauru a safe place to settle refugees?
PETER DUTTON: Yes, it is and obviously we're working with the Nauruan Government to provide support to them in the regional processing centre arrangement that they have.
We've also got a bilateral arrangement with Cambodia to say to people that if you have sought to come to Australia by boat, you will not be settled in our country. And again, that is the state of policy of both the Liberal and Labor parties.
So I think despite the fact that some advocates are messaging back to people on Nauru that if you just stay there, don't accept offers to return back to your place of origin or to a third country. If you hold out, the Australian Government will bend.
We're not going to and we've been very clear about that and it is a significant part of the reason, as to why we've been able to stop boats.
Of course, turn-backs, where it's safe to do so, has been the other aspect, but we send a very clear message that we're not going to allow people smugglers to get back into business.
JOURNALIST: But let's go back to the question, sorry, because I don't want to run out of time. We've got a fair bit of ground to cover.
Can the Australian Government guarantee the safety of these people as they're released into the Nauruan communities, particularly given that women and children, 67 allegations of child abuse, 33 claims of rape and sexual assault on Nauru. Can the Australian Government guarantee these peoples' safety?
PETER DUTTON: Well, Emma, the Australian Government or the Queensland or New South Wales, Victorian Government, can't provide you with that guarantee for people coming out into the Australian society. There will be people who... [interrupted]
JOURNALIST: But this is a much smaller area of land.
PETER DUTTON: Of course. Well, if we go to Tasmania or we go to an island off our coast, we can't provide those undertakings.
But the reasonable suggestion is that if people do the wrong thing, if they commit an offence, are they going to be investigated and prosecuted if evidence substantiates a prosecution? Yes, of course.
And we've provided, since I've been in this portfolio, additional support through the Australian Federal Police to mentor those police on Nauru, to help them with investigations, with prosecutions, to make sure that we can provide support to have an environment as safe as it possibly can be.
We inherited an enormous mess when we came into government. 50,000 ...
JOURNALIST: I don't want to talk about that ...
PETER DUTTON: Well, I want to talk about the situation on ...
JOURNALIST: ... because we are gonna run out of time.
PETER DUTTON: Sure.
JOURNALIST: You've been in government for two years and I am a little bit curious about your comparison with the states of Australia because I would have thought the numbers, the ratios of those who were alleging abuse and sexual assault and rape are entirely out of whack with the proportion of asylum seekers and refugees who are on Nauru. These are significant numbers. Wouldn't you agree?
PETER DUTTON: Well the point that I was going to make before is that you've got a situation where people in their tens of thousands arrived when Labor was in government. Now we've... [interrupted]
JOURNALIST: Yes, but there's not tens of thousands on Nauru, Minister.
PETER DUTTON: No, but the people who are on Nauru now are those who arrived under Labor's watch and we are processing people as quickly as possible.
JOURNALIST: But they're now your responsibility to keep safe.
PETER DUTTON: Well, in terms of those who are on our shores, the so-called legacy caseload and there are about 30,000 people. We provide support to those people.
People who are in the regional processing centres are the responsibility of either the Nauruan Government or the PNG Government, but we provide support to those governments to capacity build, to provide support through education, through housing, through hospitals ... [interrupted]
JOURNALIST: So what you're saying is you're doing as much as you possibly can to keep these people safe. You couldn't be doing any more?
PETER DUTTON: We're doing a significant amount. And, yes, we do want two things. One is to make sure that the boats don't restart so we don't fill the vacancies, and two, to provide people with a new opportunity in life, which is not going to be settling in Australia, but settling in a third country, or where it's appropriate to do so, to return back to their country of origin.
JOURNALIST: What are the prospects that some or all of these people being settled - being released into Nauru will be settled in Cambodia or another country?
PETER DUTTON: Well in the end, that's a question for them because it needs to be on a volunteer basis.
JOURNALIST: So Cambodia has said they would potentially take them all?
PETER DUTTON: They have said that they are willing to work with us and the detail of the MOU is such that they are happy to look at people who are willing to come to Cambodia to start a new life. Now we're working... [interrupted]
JOURNALIST: Have they - is it right that they've only taken four so far?
PETER DUTTON: There are four people and there are two who have been interviewed and may well be in the process of heading to Cambodia as well, but we haven't publicly commented on that.
Part of the difficulty of course that we've got is that we have a lot of advocates, I'm sure well-intentioned, but who message into Nauru to tell people - ‘Don't accept these deals, don't take this offer, you'll come to Australia’.
And again, I can't be any clearer. The Labor Party can't be any clearer.
JOURNALIST: Have you got evidence that that's what's going on?
PETER DUTTON: Yes, of course we have. And I've been very clear about the fact that this false hope that's being offered out to people is not in their best interests and it's not in our best interests either.
JOURNALIST: Let's talk about false hope, on to another matter. Lateline tracked the movements of a Syrian man, the refugee known only by his first name, Eyad, and he was deported back to Syria after almost two years on Manus Island.
How in good conscience did the Australian Government participating sending someone assessed as a legitimate refugee back into a warzone?
PETER DUTTON: Well, Emma, a couple of points. First is, I don't have any comment to make in relation to an individual case. We've got laws in our country that we abide by in relation to privacy and I think that's appropriate, but a general comment in relation to... [interrupted]
JOURNALIST: The gentleman has spoken himself, you would be aware of.
PETER DUTTON: I'm aware of the comments and I'm aware of the fact that it's been on Lateline before.
The point that I would make is that people on a voluntary basis can indicate to the authorities that they wish to return to their country of origin.
Now whether that's in Indonesia, whether it's in India, whether it's in Vietnam, Syria, wherever it might be, that's a judgment that people can make.
And in the end, we've been very clear about this fact. We are not going to settle these people in Australia. We have a very generous refugee program. The most generous on a per capita basis in the world. But we've been very clear ... [interrupted]
JOURNALIST: That's actually not true, Minister, I'm afraid.
PETER DUTTON: Well it is. Well it is.
JOURNALIST: Well we've been told by Human Rights Watch that on a per capita basis the EU is accepting double Australia.
PETER DUTTON: Well, if you look at the three countries who are doing the most here, in terms of... [interrupted]
JOURNALIST: But you just said we were the most generous in the world.
PETER DUTTON: And we are, but you're not talking about permanent settlements, are you? You're talking about temporary.
JOURNALIST: He says on a per capita basis, that 12,000 figure is half the number in the EU.
PETER DUTTON: But are you talking temporary or permanent?
JOURNALIST: Well, that was his comparison to our 12,000 figure, but I don't want to get bogged down in that…
PETER DUTTON: OK, sure. So on a permanent basis ... [interrupted]
JOURNALIST: I want to talk about sending people back to Syria 'cause that's the ...
PETER DUTTON: But let me answer this question because you put this allegation which is false and... [interrupted]
JOURNALIST: No, I'm just telling you what Ken Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said to us.
PETER DUTTON: Well it's not factually correct and I'm sorry that you haven't checked that.
But in terms of the permanent refugees, we have, on a per capita basis, the highest number that we settle in the world.
The other two countries who are doing the heavy lifting, Canada and the US - outside of those three countries, people are not settling people on a permanent basis.
Now, the 13,750 a year that we settle, we've got 12,000 Syrians in addition to that and the number will grow each and every year until 2018-19.
We do have something to be proud of, but we are not going to allow people smugglers to start again because 1,200 people drowned at sea when they sought to come by boat.
JOURNALIST: Minister, we're running out of time. I'm really sorry to interrupt you. Are you proud of the fact that you're presiding over a system where people in offshore detention feel such despair they'd rather go back into a warzone than to be stuck in an Australian-run detention centre for one day longer.
PETER DUTTON: Well, they’re emotive questions there, Emma, but, again, to come back to the facts....
JOURNALIST: But it's the truth, Minister.
PETER DUTTON: I'll tell you what I'm proud of. The fact is that we have not had a drowning at sea in the last two years. 1,200 people drowned under Labor's watch. 50,000 came on 800 boats. There has not been a successful boat arrival in Australia.
Seventeen detention centres in Australia were open under Labor, 13 of those have closed.
I'm dealing with the facts as opposed to the emotion.
JOURNALIST: Yeah, no, we understand those facts, but there is emotion attached here because Australia is the only country in the world that is sending people back to Syria.
PETER DUTTON: ….And there should be, but it should be based in fact. The fact is that we have not allowed people smugglers to get back into business because... [interrupted]
JOURNALIST: Is that or is that not a fact? Do you know another country that is sending people back to Syria?
PETER DUTTON: I know, in terms of what we have done, we should be very proud of the fact that we've been able to close down this evil trade. I'm not going to allow ...
JOURNALIST: ….the United Nations and the immigration…the International Immigration Office……..
PETER DUTTON: ……I'm not going to allow it to reopen, Emma. People aren't happy about that. Chiefly the people smugglers, but we're not going to allow that to recommence.
JOURNALIST: Do you think Australian people are happy about a situation that returns people back into a warzone?
PETER DUTTON: The Government was elected at the last election on the platform of making sure that we didn't allow boat arrivals. That was a very significant issue at the last election. And it is one of the most significant achievements of this Government.
JOURNALIST: Minister, why is Australia not willing to make a special case for the handful of Syrians who are locked up with no prospect of going home or being released into the community?
PETER DUTTON: Because Emma, we've said to those people that if you've sought to come to our country by boat, if you've sought illegally to come to our country, then you're not going to settle in our country.
Now, you're seeing people drown on the Mediterranean, you're seeing terrible scenes across Europe because people have lost control of their borders.
JOURNALIST: Isn't there a fundamental contradiction at the heart of your Government's position here. On the one hand you say your asylum seeker policy saves lives by preventing deaths at sea.
PETER DUTTON: Yes.
JOURNALIST: How can you then return people to an almost certain death at home?
PETER DUTTON: If people make a decision that they want to return to their place of birth, their place of origin, their place of residence, that is an issue for them, Emma.
In terms of the 12,000 people that we're going to take from Syria... [interrupted]
JOURNALIST: This man who we're discussing, he had a child who was born in a warzone while he was locked up on Manus Island.
He had no prospect of being able to help his wife and child flee. What sort of a choice did this man have?
And we've got emails that were obtained under Freedom of Information from a member of your Immigration Department staff saying that she told him and others that they would not be settled in Australia or a third country. It's hardly a choice, is it?
PETER DUTTON: We have arrangements in Nauru, different arrangements in Manus. In relation to Manus, people can settle - if they're found to be refugees, they can settle in PNG, otherwise, we want people to return to their country of origin or we're happy to negotiate and we do on a regular basis with people to return to a third country.
We offer settlement packages. We sit down and work with people. As I say, it's difficult though when they're getting messages from well-intentioned people here to say m - ‘Don't accept those passage packages’.
Now we'll work through all of these people and at the same time we can settle on a per capita basis more people than any other country in the world. That's how our migration system operates and it needs to operate in an orderly fashion.
JOURNALIST: And finally and very briefly because we're out of time, a representative from the UN was supposed to visit Australia last month, but he changed his mind because the Government refused to give him a promise that it wouldn't punish people for speaking to him about conditions on Nauru and Manus Island. Why wouldn't you give him that promise?
PETER DUTTON: Well again, that's a strange interpretation of - and a one-sided... [interrupted]
JOURNALIST: They were his - they were his words.
PETER DUTTON: Well again, if I can give you mine. We provide support to people from the UN, from the Red Cross, other agencies that visit detention centres all the time. We're happy for that to take place.
In terms of the legislation that you speak of, what we've said is we're - our employees have access to secret documents, for example, in relation to intelligence matters. If people release that information, there's a penalty for that.
If they see somebody being assaulted or an offence being committed, they have an obligation to report that and there's whistleblower protection to provide that support to people.
As I say, we provide an arrangement which is acceptable to the Red Cross and many other NGOs in terms of their access to the centres.
We're willing for that and very happy for that to continue, but that is a very one-sided, if I might say, interpretation of that particular person's interaction with our department.
JOURNALIST: Peter Dutton, appreciate the time you've taken to speak to us tonight.
PETER DUTTON: Thanks, Emma.