Eight-and-a-half months after signing the Regional Resettlement Arrangement the Papua New Guinea government has approved a visa that will allow it to settle refugees.
The visa still needs to be passed into law, but the government says it hopes the first refugees will be resettled from the Australian detention centre on Manus island in June.
The news comes after the inaugural joint ministerial forum between Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison and his PNG counterpart, Rimbink Pato.
Part-way down a list of the meetings’ outcomes is the news people have been waiting almost nine months for: a visa for refugees has been approved.
Refugee Action Coalition’s Ian Rintoul is welcoming the news, cautiously.
“It is a very welcome decision,” Mr Rintoul said. ” It’s been a huge hole in Papua New Guinea’s commitment to deal with refugees in any respect but I also note that it is only a cabinet decision and it is yet to go before parliament and yet to be carried by parliament.
“The devil will be in the detail because there is no indication that people will be free to become a citizen of PNG and that remains a huge obstacle to there being a genuine ability to have permanent and secure resettlement in Papua New Guinea.”
According to the statement from the Immigration Ministers, the visas will give refugees work rights and freedom of movement.
But the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s Kon Karapanagiotidis says he fears refugees may escape one form of persecution only to be subjected to another.
“It’s one of the poorest nations on earth who have had one of the richest nations on earth dump its refugees on them. So they’re right ot feel resentful and angry,” he said.
“I’ve got grave concerns about the fact that clearly if they can be attacked and a refugee can be killed while under the protection of the Australian government, god knows what’s going to happen to them when they’re out there in the community. So I have grave concerns for the safety of people that are resettled in Papua New Guinea given the public sentiment.”
According to the joint statement the first round of initial refugee assessments could be delivered within a month.
The ministers say so far, two-thirds of asylum seekers on Manus Island have had initial interviews.
Former Manus Island migration agent, and whistleblower Liz Thompson says since the death of Iranian asylum seeker Reza Berati, asylum seekers on the island are lodging asylum claims against Papua New Guinea.
She says they have a legitimate fear of persecution in PNG.
And she fears news that the PNG government is now one step closer to resettling refugees could increase distress within the Manus Island detention centre.
“Given the levels of self-harm and despair already at the centre that those kind of things would not exactly be a surprise if we see a wave of those kind of incidents in response to this announcement.”
The Immigration Ministers say a review process is being developed for people whose refugee claims are initially rejected, and it should be completed in April.
Recently, PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said most asylum seekers are economic migrants.
Australian Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young says such comments suggest any refugee determination process established in PNG will be a sham.
Australia has reaffirmed its commitment to paying for the resettlement of refugees in PNG.