Malcolm Turnbull has affirmed his Government’s intentions to forcibly deport 8000 Iranian asylum seekers who have been found not to be refugees.
But Australia must first strike a long sought-after agreement with Tehran to accept involuntary returnees.
Speaking on the sidelines of a United Nations summit on migration hosted by President Barack Obama, the Prime Minister said the “scourge of people smuggling” would only be ended when nations took responsibility for their citizens.
“It’s very important that nations accept back, whether on a voluntary or involuntary basis, their citizens who have been denied refugee status,” Mr Turnbull said.
The PM was answering a question from The West Australian as to what his Government was doing to deal with the near 2000 people who have languishing on Nauru and Manus Island for more than three years.
Iranians were one of the biggest cohorts among the 51,000 boat people who arrived in Australia between 2007 and 2013 under Labor.
But even though more than 8000 Iranian asylum seekers have been denied refugee status, they cannot be sent home because Iran will only take voluntary returnees.
Reaching an agreement on involuntary returnees would be a major breakthrough in dealing with the legacy caseload.
With that in mind, Australia has been slowly rebuilding ties with Iran, beginning with a trip to Tehran by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in April last year followed by visit from an Iranian delegation, led by director-general for consular affairs Ali Chegeni, two months later.
Australia has held out the prospect of offering Iranian citizens work and holiday visas and possible consulates in Sydney and Melbourne.
In January, global sanctions against Iran were lifted in exchange for the verified disabling of its nuclear capability and Trade Minister Steve Ciobo has been actively pursuing closer economic ties.
Ms Bishop, who is also in New York, said she had been negotiating with her Iranian counterpart Dr Mohammad Javad Zarif on the issue.
“It’s been a long running discussion, we will continue to seek to negotiate with Iran so that they take back Iranian citizens who are found not to be owed protection,” she said.
“The simple fact is, they are Iranians who have been found not to be refugees, they must go back to Iran.”
Mr Obama used his valedictory speech to the United Nations to call on rich nations to be more generous in their refugee intake.
“There are a lot of nations right now that are doing the right thing,” Mr Obama told the UN.
“But many nations – particularly those blessed with wealth and the benefits of geography – that can do more to offer a hand, even if they also insist that refugees who come to our countries have to do more to adapt to the customs and conventions of the communities that are now providing them a home.”