CANBERRA: Visiting Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape pressed Australian officials on Monday for a timeline to resettle asylum seekers stranded on PNG’s Manus Island, but appeared to come away empty-handed.
Marape, on his first overseas trip since taking office two months ago, met with Prime Minister Scott Morrison just days after calling on Canberra to establish a schedule for relocating several hundred would-be refugees sent to Manus under Australia’s tough offshore detention policy.
But at a joint press conference in Canberra, Marape acknowledged he had not obtained any commitment.
“It’s a work in progress for us,” he said.
“We will ensure that we have a mutually workable timetable and closing programme that is healthy for all of us, but more importantly, healthy for those people who have been part of us in Manus and PNG.”
Canberra introduced its policy of sending everyone caught trying to reach its shores by boat to processing centres in Manus and the Pacific island of Nauru six years ago on Friday, an occasion marked by weekend protests across Australia.
While many of the asylum seekers were eventually resettled, about 450 increasingly desperate men remain in Papua New Guinea, where there has been a spate of suicide attempts in recent weeks.
Another 350 are still in Nauru.
Morrison’s conservative government has steadfastly refused to take in the asylum seekers from PNG — a former colony — or Nauru, insisting this would encourage more people to attempt the perilous sea journey to reach Australia.
Marape is the first foreign leader that Morrison has hosted on a state visit since his government was re-elected in May.
The trip comes in the context of a push by Morrison to “step up” Australia’s role in the Pacific to counter efforts by China to expand its economic and diplomatic influence in the region. Morrison has announced a series of aid initiatives aimed at boosting electricity production and healthcare in PNG, one of the world’s poorest nations despite being rich in natural resources.
Australia and the United States are also partnering with PNG to redevelop a naval base on Manus as a counterweight to Chinese power in the region. —AFP