Australia's Dutton Defends Policy; Some Refugees Forced To Wait On Island
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We now have a defense of parking refugees on a remote Pacific island. Australia has placed some refugees on that island, vowing they will never be allowed into the country.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In recent weeks, we've heard their stories - refugees who have no idea of their future, a woman who attempted suicide, aid workers who said the abuse of refugees was effectively ignored.
INSKEEP: Today we hear from Peter Dutton, who is Australia's Immigration Minister, who offers a reason for the policy his country has pursued since 2013. Australia, he says, wanted to stop refugees from coming and often dying on dangerous boat journeys.
PETER DUTTON: I've spoken to the sailors on our boats, on our vessels who were pulling half-eaten bodies out of the water. Now, I don't want to return back to those days. And the fact that, in two years, we have not had one drowning at sea, I think that is something to be very proud of.
INSKEEP: Dutton says that outcome is worth all of those stories of people left in permanent limbo, stories he plays down.
DUTTON: This is where I think it's important to stick with the facts and not the emotion. There is a big body of argument, generally from the extreme left, in the Australian political debate that are completely opposed to strong border protection policies. So they advocate a position of effectively open borders. And as we said, as we're seeing in Europe, as you've experienced in the United States, we have to have...
INSKEEP: I just have to stop you for one thing, Minister, to note that people use the phrase open borders in the U.S. political campaign, and it's completely inaccurate. Are you sure that open borders is actually the policy of your political opponents in Australia?
DUTTON: This is what they advocate. And as I say, this is the extreme view of the argument, and they're very active on social media because, in the end, what they want to do is disrupt the policy that the government's implemented. And we're very keen to provide significant support to our two neighbors who are offering the regional processing centers.
We have settlement packages that we offer to people to return back to the country of origin. So we have an absolute desire to treat people with dignity and respect. And in the end, though, people do want to come to Australia, and many of them resist any offers to go back to their country of origin, even when they've been found not to be refugees.
INSKEEP: And some of them are found - in fact, most of them are found to be refugees, aren't they?
DUTTON: Well, some of them certainly are, but we've been clear in saying that we are not going to take people off boats. We will take people in an orderly way. The United Nations points out that Australia is one of the leading countries in the world in terms of the amount of assistance that we provide to refugees. We want people to lead a dignified existence. But we've said we are not going to settle people under that situation.
INSKEEP: What is the fear if you were to let some people into Australia this way?
DUTTON: The fear is that the 50,000 would come again on 800 boats and we would have 1,200 hundred people drowning at sea. The image that people saw on the television screens of the little boy who died in the waters of the Mediterranean - that played out out 1,200 times.
INSKEEP: As you know, there's been quite a lot of publicity about allegations of abuse, including sexual abuse of children, on the island of Nauru. I know you've disputed how many of these are serious, but you've also said that you will not tolerate any cases of sexual abuse. How many people have been prosecuted?
DUTTON: Well, if you look at the report to which you make reference, there were 2,107 documents. Twenty-one - so 1 percent - were classified as critical, which includes, for example, an adult female disciplining her child. That was considered as a critical incident. Clearly, in my mind, that is not a critical incident. Now, there are a number of cases where some people have made complaints of sexual abuse.
And when the police have investigated, they've withdrawn their complaints. Now, that may be for cultural reasons. It might be for other reasons. So there have been no prosecutions, but there have been investigations. Nobody wants to tolerate any instance of sexual abuse. Now, we will work with the Nauruan authorities to investigate matters, and we've provided significant support through Australian Federal Police and other agencies, significant amounts of Australian taxpayers' money to provide a humane environment on Nauru.
But in the end, as the United Nations points out, there are 65 million people who are forcibly displaced and people who would want to come to a country like ours or yours tomorrow. And the intake system must be conducted in an orderly way, and that's what I intend to do as immigration and border protection minister.
INSKEEP: We interviewed an Iranian refugee. We've got a document in front of us here stating that he's been certified as a refugee. He doesn't think that he can safely go back. He says he'd like to go to some other country, if he would be able to go to Canada or the United States or anywhere, but he doesn't really know how to do that. He's not allowed into Australia. He feels stuck there permanently, and his wife has attempted suicide - tried to hang herself. That's what he said. Are you comfortable with that outcome, given the policy imperatives that you've described?
DUTTON: We already have one of the biggest intakes of refugees in the world, but the reality is that we provide a humane and safe environment for people. We do it in an orderly way. We don't do it in a way which is dictated to us by organized criminal syndicates who have taken money from people that want an outcome. But we can only provide as much support as we can. And we provide it in a record number and in a very significant way. And of that, Australia is very proud.
INSKEEP: Minister Dutton, thanks very much for taking the time. Really appreciate it.
DUTTON: Thanks, Steve, pleasure.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.