By: Daniel Hurst, Sarah Martin and Ben Doherty
Scott Morrison has denied misleading Australians about whether his government is detaining refugees at a Melbourne hotel, insisting he “answered to the best of my knowledge at that time”.
The prime minister on Wednesday acknowledged people recognised as refugees were among those held at the Park hotel – where tennis star Novak Djokovic was also briefly detained – but insisted he had never suggested there were no refugees there.
On Monday he told a radio host: “It’s not clear that to my information that someone in that case is actually a refugee.”
Morrison came under fire over the “grossly misleading” comments, with Elaine Pearson, the Australia director of Human Rights Watch, saying on Monday: “It’s an outright lie to say that these people are not refugees, when most of them have had their refugee status formally recognised for years.”
Guardian Australia understands there are 25 refugees and seven asylum seekers currently held in the hotel.
In an interview on Monday focused on the Djokovic case, the 2GB host Ben Fordham pointed out that the tennis star “was kept in a Melbourne hotel that also holds asylum seekers that have been denied visas”.
Fordham asked: “There are refugees in that same hotel who have been detained for more than nine years, and taxpayers fork out millions of dollars to keep them in limbo. How is that acceptable?”
Morrison replied: “Well, the specific cases, Ben, I mean, it’s not clear that to my information that someone in that case is actually a refugee. They may have sought asylum and been found not to be a refugee and have chosen not to return.”
Morrison did not specifically concede that there were also refugees detained there. People who were not found to be refugees and who would not return home “can’t enter Australia”, he said.
During a media conference in Canberra on Wednesday, Morrison was asked whether he would apologise for the comments, and whether it was appropriate that some refugees had been held in detention for more than eight years.
Morrison replied: “I didn’t make a statement that every single person was, who is in that place, was not a refugee. I said that was to my understanding the case with some people who were there.”
He said there were “people in a range of situations” and he was “happy to add to that information”.
“The suggestion that I said they were all found not to be refugees, that’s not true – that is not what I said. It was a question in a radio interview, I answered to the best of my knowledge at that time. In quite a number of cases that was indeed the case.
“There were people in detention who are not owed protection under the refugee convention and our rules.”
Morrison said others who were owed protection “arrived in Australia illegally by boat”.
Under international law, it is not illegal to seek asylum. Under the Refugees Convention – to which Australia is a party – a refugee is someone who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.
Australia is obliged not to return refugees to places where they would face persecution, under a principle known as non-refoulement.
When pressed on Wednesday about the status of the 25 people at the hotel found to be refugees, Morrison said: “They’re all in various stages, various stages, of the pathway to where they will ultimately be located.”
Morrison said it was “confirmed to me this morning, that those who are there, with some obvious exceptions who arrived more recently, are people who came to Australia, illegally entered Australia by boat”.
Morrison said the government was “not wavering” on what he thought had been a bipartisan position “that someone who illegally entered Australia by boat will not be offered permanent settlement here”.
“The vast majority of people who are going through this process are actually out in the community. But there are some cases which are very sensitive and have very specific reasons as to why they would be there.”
He said some of the refugees were “on the pathway to the United States” – a reference to the resettlement deal struck between the Turnbull government and the Obama administration.
Morrison said he was “aware of one particular individual” who had been the focus “of a lot of attention” who was “on such a pathway”.
“I would be encouraging them to take up that permanent option that is available to them in the United States,” the prime minister said.
Mehdi, a refugee held in the Park hotel who fled Iran aged 15, said on Wednesday: “I suspect he’s talking about me. I have taken that option. I am waiting for you to let me go. And why must we wait in detention?”
Mehdi – who uses only one name – arrived in Australia by boat in 2013. His claim for protection under the Refugees Convention was formally recognised in 2014 while he was held by Australia on Nauru.
Pearson, of Human Rights Watch, said most of those held in the hotel had been granted refugee status after it was “established that they simply can’t return to their country”.
She said Australia had a long track record of trying to cast doubt on the claims of people who seek asylum.
“If you look at who’s being detained, it is men who have been shunted from one centre to another, in Australia or offshore, for more than eight years. At what point in time do you say they have suffered enough? They can’t simply continue to be used, for the rest of their lives, as a symbol of deterrence. They need to be allowed to move on with their lives.”