Journalist: Last week, we told you about a 25-year-old Iranian man, Saeed Hassanloo, approaching 40 days on hunger strike after learning that his attempts to stay in Australia had been denied.
Mr Hassanloo is in Royal Perth Hospital and has been in this country's detention system for some four-and-a-half years. It took a while, but the story of this man is now being widely reported. And indeed, a vigil was held outside the hospital on Friday as supporters called on the Federal Government to intervene to save his life.
Well this morning, the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told Radio National Breakfast that Mr Hassanloo has now begun to accept medical assistance and that his health is improving. I'm joined by the Minister. Peter Dutton, good morning to you.
Peter Dutton: Good morning, Geoff.
Journalist: Has Mr Hassanloo accepted medical assistance, and are you able to tell us what kind?
Peter Dutton: Well, the advice that I have received is that he has and he's working with the doctors and obviously the case managers from the Department of Immigration now. And it's difficult, obviously, for privacy reasons in particular in relation to medical histories and what the doctors are doing for him at this moment for me to expand much more beyond that, Geoff.
But he's requested fluids as I understand it and he's in discussion with doctors and with a case manager from my Department at the moment, and that's the information as I'm aware.
Journalist: Do you have any indication as to why he accepted that assistance?
Peter Dutton: No, I don't.
Journalist: Ok. What's his future, Minister?
Peter Dutton: Well, Geoff, one of the important things for us to recognise firstly is that we have an obligation to provide a new home to refugees and we do that in record numbers.
In fact, on a per capita basis, we settle more people into our country than almost any other country in the world. So there's a lot for us to be proud of. In actual fact, those numbers which this year will be about 13,750 will grow to almost 19,000 within a couple of years, so we provide significant support to those who can make out a refugee claim.
Now, this gentleman is not in that situation. He's been determined not to be a refugee, and in that situation we offer support to repatriate that person back to their country of origin. That's the situation in relation to this matter. Would I like to offer a home to the millions of people that would seek refuge in our country wanting to start a new life? Absolutely. But can I? No. And that's the difficulty, Geoff.
We've got very difficult situations that present on a daily basis in the immigration portfolio. We do settle a lot of people. We provide a lot of support in the community for people to start a new life, but where it is determined that that person is not a refugee then we provide assistance to send that person back home.
Now, obviously people don't want to go back home. They want to stay in Australia and I fully understand that, but the difficulty for us, as I say, is that there are 14 million people around the world that would want to call Australia home tomorrow and we have to have a managed migration program, and that's what we're seeking to do in relation to this case and many others.
Journalist: I appreciate you answering that question in terms of the big picture; are you able to be more specific about what his future is? What kind of time frame? How soon after this man perhaps leaves hospital is he removed from this country, and just what is the process there?
Peter Dutton: Well, the process is difficult, depending on which country people come from. So this gentleman has come from Iran. He wants to make a new life for himself. I understand that, but we have a difficult situation particularly with some Iranians because if they choose not to go back to Iran then it's difficult to force that removal upon them.
Now, we have to negotiate with people - and we do it in great numbers - to allow people to return to Iran. We make payments, we provide assurances as best we can about the support that we can provide.
In the end though, if people want to stay in Australia they have to make out a refugee claim or they need to come through the migration program otherwise, so again - again, without…
Journalist: [Interrupts] Okay. So a couple of difficulties. Yeah, a couple of the difficulties here: Would he be accepted back in Iran? Would Iranian authorities accept him returning to the country?
Peter Dutton: Well, I can only rely on the advice that's given to me, Geoff, on two points. One is that the information that he's provided and the investigations that have been conducted, as is the case in thousands of these matters each year, the experts have decided that it is not a risk for him to return to Iran and that he doesn't have a refugee claim to make here.
That's the facts as they're presented to me in relation to this matter. We have provided every support to return him to Iran, but in these situations, if people don't make out their refugee claim, they will not be staying in Australia.
We'll be doing everything we can to work with them to send him home because as I say, we take increasing to 18,000 people a year - a big number each year, as well as members into our community through other migration programs and visa categories - we accept many people each year.
But we have to do it in an orderly way and we are not going to accept the situation that people just refuse to go because they want to stay here when they're not refugees.
Journalist: My guest is the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. It's 20 minutes to 9 o'clock. Mr Hassanloo seemingly was prepared to risk losing his life rather than go back to Iran. Did you ever consider intervening?
Peter Dutton: I sought legal advice, Geoff, about whether or not I could legally force fluids and food upon a person and the very clear legal advice is that I can't.
I would be committing the doctors to an offence of common assault under WA law and the prospects of me getting that injunction from the courts on the legal advice available to me was zero.
These obviously are matters that we need to look at - we need to consider - because we don't want to see people harmed. We want to provide a safe environment for people, particularly if they have a prolonged period in detention before they return to their country of origin.
But the difficulty for me is if you give in - to what is essentially emotional blackmail, understanding that they're in very, very difficult circumstances - the clear advice from my department is that I would have thousands - hundreds or thousands of people, was the exact wording of the advice to me - of people who would go on hunger strikes tomorrow if the Government was seen to be caving in to these demands.
That's not a situation I'm going to put other people in. It's not a situation I'm going to put the Government in, and we have to provide an orderly process, as I say. I think we do that in a responsible way.
People need, as I say, a safe environment in which to be accommodated, but we can't have a situation where people can come here demanding to stay when they don't have a claim to stay, because frankly the seas would then be full of boats coming. And under Labor, we had almost 2000 children in detention. I've got that number down closer - much closer to 100, and I want to work that number down to zero, but I'm necessarily coming down to the hardest cases and I want to clear people out of detention.
When Kevin Rudd came to government 2007, there were four people in total in held detention. They were all adults, no children, and we're dealing with a legacy case load at the moment of about 31-and-a-half thousand cases…
Journalist: [Interrupts] Okay, can I just - can I just talk about…
Peter Dutton: …bearing in mind that 50,000 people came on 800 boats.
Journalist: Can I just talk about a couple of things? When…
Peter Dutton: Of course.
Journalist: …your description of this as emotional blackmail.
Peter Dutton: Yes.
Journalist: Those who have been to see Mr Hassanloo, and want him to live, and want him to be allowed to stay in the country are saying it is inhumane not to intervene given the lengths he was prepared to go; indeed to lose his life rather than go back to Iran. We know that these debates are full of emotive language…
Peter Dutton: Yes.
Journalist: …but what tells you that to do something like this is an act of emotional blackmail?
Peter Dutton: Well we've provided over a long period of time opportunities to work through cases with individuals, and again I don't want to concentrate on the specifics of an individual case. I know that this case is in the public domain at the moment, but there are restrictions around what I can say….
Journalist: [Talks over] and I… well true, and I do want to concentrate on that case because we often talk about people in terms of hundreds and thousands of them - we now know a little bit about this man's circumstances, and our listeners honestly will have widespread views on whether you're doing the right thing or whether there should be a more humane response, any of those things, but we think it's important that sometimes you actually do know more about someone's circumstances. You say for privacy reasons you can't tell us more about his health?
Peter Dutton: Well I'm saying I can confirm some of the details I just can't go into the man's medical history or what the doctors are doing for him or what support we've provided through specialist care to this particular individual. I mean look…
Peter Dutton: … that's it, so I'm happy to talk as best as I can Geoff, I'm not trying to be difficult about it, I just have to respect the man's privacy, and bearing in mind that I know that there's a lot of public interest in this matter which is why I'm speaking to you. I've provided as much detail as I can…
Journalist: …and I appreciate that, but you also make the point that if you were to grant this man asylum it would have hundreds or perhaps thousands of people seeking to do the same thing? Seeking to go on hunger strike?
Peter Dutton: Yes. And the other point I want to make is just in terms of your own language if I might. I mean you talk about inhumane in terms of the actions of me as Minister or of the Government. It is a very different situation than that, and as you say your listeners will have differing views, they'll be for and against the position that we've adopted.
We had 1200 people die at sea who drowned, children, men and women. Our Defence Force and our Border Protection staff were pulling bodies form the water when we had an unmanaged border process. I am not going to return to that process, (a) because I don't want children in detention here in Australia, and as I say I'm working through to get those kids out of detention and wherever possible adults as well. I don't want the positions backfilled by new boat arrivals.
It's the position of both the Liberal Party and the Labor Party in this country to support a regional processing centre arrangement through Nauru, through Christmas Island, through Manus and also an onshore here on the mainland in Australia through our detention network.
Now you can say that it's inhumane to keep people in detention, you can make that case in your own words that's fine but I am…
Journalist: [Talks over] Let me be clear, let me be clear…
Peter Dutton: Just let me finish.
Journalist: Let me be clear I'm only saying that they are the words of people who were holding a vigil outside that hospital on Friday.
Peter Dutton: No well not the way in which you framed your original comment Geoff I'm sorry, so I'm happy to leave the point there, but it does still need to be made I actually think it is very humane to stop people drowning at sea. I think it's very humane that we take 18,750 people a year, within a couple of years under the humanitarian and refugee program making us on a per capita basis one of the most generous nation in the world, or the most humane nation in the world if you like.
I think it's humane to stop people going into detention here, and if we don't deter people from coming on boats, and I can assure you there are people across South-East Asia at the moment, across the Middle East, who are trying to fill boats to come to Australia and we deal with that threat every day.
I don't want people in detention, but the reason that we are stopping the boats is because we don't want those that we're bringing out of detention now to be backfilled by new arrivals.
That is in my judgement - in addition in particular to stopping the people drowning at sea, and accepting people in record numbers through the front door in a managed migration program - that is humane in my mind.
Journalist: My guest is Peter Dutton the Immigration Minister. Minister I was just trying to establish a couple of things there, and one when I used that phrase emotional blackmail, which were your words, I'm interested that that is an argument that on one side of this case it is seen as emotional blackmail if someone is to go on a hunger strike, others will say they are people who are in a situation of real desperation, so of course it depends from where you sit here.
But I'm just trying to be clear about… when you talk about your concerns of others, some might say of you 'well Mr Dutton you've got a moral responsibility here', your answer is 'well we believe that these kind of activities are forms of emotional blackmail and we can't give into them'.
Peter Dutton: I think the situation that this gentleman faces for him is desperate and grim because he wants to stay in Australia, and as I say Geoff I can fully understand that, but so do 14 million other people.
If people know that they can come to our shores, they're not found to be refugees, and yet they can demand to stay here that would result in many, many people coming to our country by boat. There's no question about that, and that's the situation that the Rudd Government and Gillard Government found themselves in.
Now we've stopped the boats, and people are critical of that, they say that we should settle whoever comes to our shores; that is not a managed way. It's not a way to run a migration program, it doesn't work anywhere else in the world, and I think the fact that we can increase our numbers of people we're accepting into our country through the humanitarian and refugee program demonstrates that we are a compassionate people and we have a lot to be very proud of.
But in relation to this matter if this particular person, or another case like it, if this person is saying I'm demanding to have this visa and this outcome or I will starve myself to death; I think that is emotional blackmail.
And I understand as I say that this person is in a very, very desperate situation because the outcome that he seeks is to stay in Australia, and regrettably whether it through good intention or whatever else there are some advocates who would be telling him to just do whatever it takes, try and outlast the Government, they'll bend eventually, they'll settle you here, that's not helping the situation.
We have offered assistance to return this person back to Iran because the relevant experts have deemed (a) that this person doesn't have a refugee claim in our country, and (b) that they don't have threat of persecution on return. That's the advice available to me and in those circumstances we work with people.
We work with a lot of people each year, successfully, to send them back and at the same time as I say, in an orderly way, we settle people through the humanitarian program, and that's why I think we've got a good balance and a humane balance in what we're doing.
Journalist: Minister we'll leave it there for now, thank you for your time.
Peter Dutton: Thanks so much.