Immigration Minister Peter Dutton is facing claims he has spread “children overboard” style misinformation by appearing to blame asylum seekers for last week’s violent outburst at the Manus Island detention centre.
Mr Dutton on Thursday raised the possibility that fears over a five-year-old local boy who was allegedly led into the Australian-run facility sparked the fighting, which resulted in PNG soldiers and police firing up to 100 gunshots.
Without specifying the timing of the alleged incident, Mr Dutton said there was “a lot of angst” in the community about why three asylum seekers had brought a child into the centre – especially in light of two sexual assault charges earlier this year.
But officials in PNG disputed that account on Friday. Manus Province police commander David Yapu confirmed a child had been brought into the facility but said it took place “about one week” before the Good Friday brawl, and had nothing to do with the later outbreak of violence.
“A child about 10 years old was taken into the centre and then was given some fruit,” Mr Yapu told Fairfax Media by telephone.
“Then Wilson Security had to intervene and get him out from the centre. That had nothing to do with the latest incident involving soldiers.”
The child was returned to his parents unharmed, Mr Yapu confirmed. He said the police investigation into Friday’s incident was ongoing but stressed: “The child issue is unrelated – unrelated.”
“That’s a total different issue altogether,” he said.
Fairfax Media did not receive a response from Mr Dutton’s office before deadline.
PNG Defence Force chief of staff Raymond Numa, whose soldiers were accused by police of drunken violence in the Good Friday brawl, told Fairfax Media he was not aware of the involvement of a child.
“On the preliminary investigation, there’s no mention about a young boy being led into the detention centre,” he said Friday.
Refugees at the Manus Island facility have also vehemently denied any link between the fight and the incident involving the child.
Benham Satah said on Facebook that two weeks ago a boy who was asking for money or food was brought to the centre and given fruit, before being escorted away by Wilson Security.
Australia-based refugee advocate Ian Rintoul, who has visited the Manus Island facility, said it was “farcical” to suggest refugees could “lead” a child into the detention centre without being noticed by authorities.
“There’s a constant movement of staff up and down that road,” he said. “The idea that anyone could lead a boy away from the soccer field back to the detention centre, unimpeded or unquestioned or unobserved, is absurd. It just wouldn’t happen.”
Greens immigration spokesman Nick McKim seized on the discrepancies and called on Mr Dutton to resign or be sacked.
“It’s bloody outrageous. He’s been caught out lying and he’s got to go,” Senator McKim told Fairfax Media.
He said the apparent conflation of two separate events by Mr Dutton “smacks of children overboard” – a reference to false claims from the Howard government that asylum seekers threw their children off leaky boats to prompt a rescue.
Meanwhile, a long-running Senate inquiry into alleged incidents of self-harm and abuse on Manus Island and Nauru handed down a report that fell along party lines.
Labor and Greens senators recommended an independent audit and investigation of incidents at both islands, including responses by contractor Broadspectrum.
As part of the inquiry, the Immigration Department on Friday confirmed 41 people at the Nauru regional processing centre had been diagnosed with Dengue fever.
Coalition senators dismissed the entire inquiry as “a politically motivated public-relations stunt” designed to tarnish Operation Sovereign Borders by “interference and hearsay”.
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