The Manus Island Regional Processing Centre in Papua New Guinea was opened in 2001 as part of the Howard Government’s ‘Pacific Solution’. It was officially closed in 2008 after Kevin Rudd took office – however after Julia Gillard gained leadership, the centre was reopened in 2012. When Kevin Rudd once again took on the Prime Ministership in 2013 he introduced the ‘PNG Solution’, a regional resettlement arrangement which meant that all asylum seekers arriving to Australia by boat would have ‘no chance’ of being settled in Australia, even those found to be genuine refugees.
A United Nations report stated that the Australian Government has violated the right of asylum seekers to be free from torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment and Amnesty International found that living quarters were severely overcrowded – with up to 112 men housed in a single dormitory – and that the centre was seriously lacking in drinking water, adequate toilet and shower facilities, and basic essentials such as shoes and clothing. These conditions have been compounded by uncertainty and stress brought about by the indefinite nature of the detention, prolonged processing times, and fears over the prospect of resettlement in Papua New Guinea. The impact of these conditions on those vulnerable from previous experiences of torture and trauma in their countries of origin led to findings that at least half of all asylum seekers in offshore detention suffer from significant depression, stress and anxiety. Health services in the centre were shown to be severely inadequate and allegations of negligence were frequently made. Hamid Kehazaei, an Iranian asylum seeker detained in the Manus Island centre, died in 2014 after contracting septicaemia through a cut on his foot. Violence and insecurity resulted from tensions between asylum seekers and Manus Island locals (including staff working for the centre) which caused constant fear amongst asylum seekers. In 2014, a violent confrontation broke out within the centre resulting in the murder of 24-year-old Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati, with around 70 other asylum seekers sustained various injuries. Asylum seekers detained on Manus Island repeatedly attempted to draw attention to their plight with 700 detainees going on hunger strikes to call for better conditions within the centre, quicker processing times, and safer resettlement solutions.
In April 2016, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea found that the Centre breached the PNG constitution’s right to personal liberty, and was thus illegal. So the Papua New Guinea Prime Minister announced that the processing centre would be closed. Then in November 2016, it was announced that a deal had been made between Australia and the United States to resettle people in detention on Manus (and Nauru) Islands in the US, an arrangement President Donald Trump was later to stress was one where the US was only obliged to ‘go through the process’. This led to more fear and uncertainty for those still on Manus Island.
The Manus Island detention centre was considered officially closed by the Australian government on 31 October 2017.
Reports several months prior indicated that about 100 men from the centre had transferred to a Port Moresby transit centre with the remaining refugees sent a letter outlining their options:
- relocate to the transit centre
- move into the PNG community
- go ‘home’ voluntarily (with a payment of $20,000 from the Australian government) or
- resettle in a third country, potentially the US.
And then the Australian government offered money to Rohingya refugees on Manus Island to return to Myanmar where ethnic cleansing has been accelerated in recent weeks. (While Australia, along with France and Britain Australia, urged Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi to push for an end to military violence against Rohingya Muslims, it was no secret that the Australian government’s motivation for the Nobel Peace Prize winner to stand against the potential genocide is that the current crisis could spark a new wave of ‘boat people‘. However, when Aung San Suu Kyi did refer to the situation in a national address, her words were widely regarded as far too little, too late.)
As regards the US resettlement deal, on 20 September 2017, 25 refugees – most who had been held on Manus Island for more than four years – were told they had been accepted for permanent resettlement in the US. Those that were not selected were magnanimous but retained their scepticism, particularly in relation to the Australian government. Iranian refugee and journalist Behrouz Boochani stated:
“They are playing with us and they are wasting time. After a year, they only take 25 refugees and are using this deal to waste time. We are very worried they will keep us here for five years or even more.”
For Behrouz Boochani and his fellow detainees on Manus Island, none of the options offered to those left on the 100km x 30km PNG province were even remotely viable.
“They don’t want people to settle in PNG. There is not a future for us in this country, and this is not a safe country. There is enough evidence that this is not a safe country for the refugee.”
Refugees and asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea had been threatened with arrest and prosecution as authorities ratcheted up the pressure ahead of the closure of Australian processing centre. Reports that refugees had been attacked and robbed in separate incidents outside of the compound resulting in machete wounds and other injuries led to protests by asylum seekers against leaving the facility for a temporary transit centre in the island’s main town. These protests began after water and power supplies were cut off at the centre’s largest compound. Mr Boochani said life inside was “systematic torture” but was preferable to life in PNG or being returned to a country of origin.
“I cannot go back to Iran. If I go back, they will arrest me at the airport and then torture me physically for months and months and after that they will they will definitely hang me. How can I go back now? … I have to stay here and resist. Or there is another way. I can kill myself. If I kill myself this game is over.”
Three weeks before the centre’s closure, signs were posted around the camp offering refugees the ‘opportunity’ to put in an “Expression of Interest” to apply to move to the detention centre on Nauru. Those that remained indicated that few are likely to take up the offer. Amir Taghinia from Iran stated clearly:
We do not want to move there because this is another detention centre, this is another island prison.
The only other options for the detainees left were to stay in the abandoned detention centre or move into the PNG community where local people are vehemently opposed to their presence. And although the PNG government had contracted International Health and Medical Services to stay beyond the closure date, services would not be provided at the officially closed facility so detainees were being assisted to “self-manage” their medications during the transition to having to access services in the community or in Port Moresby. However, with PNG’s general healthcare system in crisis (with reported shortages of medication across multiple regions, including Manus province) and the high prevalence of mental health issues among the refugee cohort, the situation and approach was seen by many medical professionals as highly risky. AND a report by Human Rights Watch, which interviewed 40 refugees and asylum seekers indicated that young intoxicated local men have been robbing and attacking the former detainees using sticks, machetes, rocks, knives and screwdrivers. So with the detention centre slated for closure imminent, more than 700 men were refusing to leave over safety fears.
On 20th October, a notice was posted (in Farsi) warning that after 31st October, all food, water and electricity will be disconnected, the fences will come down and the facility will be handed over to the PNG Defence Forces. And that had already begun.
The Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) reported that earlier in the year, drunk soldiers from the PNG Defence Forces went on a rampage, tried to crash a vehicle through the detention centre fences and fired over 100 shots, including from an M-16 Assault Rifle, at the refugees detained inside. As a result, the hundreds who remained in the Manus facility feared for their safety even more than ever. AND, just days before the closure it was announced that extra Papua New Guinean police and ‘the notorious mobile squad’ would be brought in, with authorities warning people’s safety is “not to be taken for granted.” The police commissioner, Gary Baki, said:
“The safety of both the refugees and government workers plus staff of leading agencies is not to be taken for granted given the tension that is now being expressed by the locals on Manus Island.”
Daniel Webb, Director of Legal Advocacy at the HRLC– who has been to Manus three times to investigate conditions on the ground – had no doubt that there were multiple grounds for refugees to fear for their safety …
“PNG military personnel have attacked these men once before. Now our Government is tearing down the fences and putting them in charge. The UN has already called this a humanitarian disaster. It could be about to turn into a bloodbath.”
Four days before the official closure, Behrouz Boochani wrote a piece ‘from the inside’ for the Guardian. His own empathy means that he understands the feelings of the local people. He acknowledged:
“…they do not feel safe with 800 foreign men among them. Their feeling of insecurity is understandable if one considers the circumstances characterising the Manus Island society: one must account for the cultural framework of the local people, their economy and demographics. The population on Manus Island exceeds 40,000 people, most of which live in villages nestled in the jungle. Only a small number – just over 3,000 people – live in Lorengau. This is a tribal society, living according to traditional cultures unique to Manus Island. Also, the island’s economy is totally based on a traditional system that is connected with the natural environment. With the closure of the RPC more than 2,000 jobs will cease to exist in a small traditional society that does not have the capacity or the readiness to accommodate hundreds of refugees; not to mention that a high percentage want to settle down with their families.”
But yet again, these men from war-torn and oppression origins who ventured to Australia wanting to live and work in peace were faced with no viable options as to where they could live, how they could live … without fearing for their lives.
“For some time the refugees have been conducting peaceful protests every day in front of the main gate of the prison. They are determined not to leave the camp. The way things are at the moment the refugees must decide between one of two choices: attack from the local people or attack at the hands of the navy. The whole situation is volatile and unpredictable.”
The day prior to the Centre’s closure, the PNG immigration minister issued an official statement making it clear that those who didn’t want to to remain on Manus after the detention centre closure were Australia’s responsibility. Petrus Thomas said in an official statement:
“PNG has offered refugees the option of resettlement but will not force refugees who do not wish to settle in the country … they remain the responsibility of Australia.”
Elaine Pearson, Australia director of Human Rights Watch, agreed saying:
“Australia has bullied the PNG government into meeting this arbitrary deadline of October 31, while providing no long term solution for the men trapped on Manus … Australia should start living up to its international obligations and immediately transfer all the men to safety.”
On 31 October, the official day of closure, the detainees on Manus Island launched legal action over the closure of Australia’s immigration detention centre, claiming their constitutionally protected human rights are being breached by the removal of basic services including water and electricity. A PNG lawyer, Ben Lomai lodged an application and Greg Barns, an Australian lawyer, assisted with the case.
Two days later, the hundreds of men who remained behind the security fences – that they had to continually repair for their ongoing protection – peacefully protested their situation with a refusal to move to other facilities on the Island as they had assessed them to be significantly less secure locations following attacks by locals on refugees in those areas prior to the official closure.
And it seems their fears about the jeopardy within their current location was well-founded. The Papua New Guinean defence forces would take no “arbitrary action” against the men who refuse to leave the detention centre inside Lombrum naval base, its commanding officer, Begsy Karaki said. HOWEVER, he added that the group would be forcefully removed if necessary.
The “grand chief” of Papua New Guinea, Sir Michael Somare, then spoke out, accusing the Australian and PNG governments of lacking human dignity and respect over the Manus Island standoff. His retirement, he said, allowed him to speak freely and directly …
“Acts of violence have been perpetrated with impunity and worse still lives have been lost. Yet your governments are indifferent about why people risk so much making the perilous journey to start new lives. … To exploit the vulnerabilities of neighbours like PNG and Nauru is disgraceful enough but to treat human beings with complete apathy is ruthless and insensible. Descendants of many Australians who are opposed to boat people also arrived by boat before and after federation in Australia. The hypocrisy is astounding.”
The treatment at the hands of Australia is undoubtedly what led the Manus detainees to the following objective …
So when newly elected New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern restated her country’s offer to take 150 of the abandoned refugees, there was some hope for a positive outcome for at least some of the men. However, the Australian Prime Minister reportedly seemed determined to continue to add yet more illogical cruelty to the the roundly condemned approach to asylum seekers by rejecting the offer … despite the fact that Australia had been called on by the United Nations to restore power and services to the Manus Island Centre. In a blunt statement issued in Geneva, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, described the situation on the Papua New Guinea island as an “unfolding humanitarian emergency“. Through a spokesperson, Prince Zeid stated that:
“All migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers are human beings. … Like all of us, they have a right to a safe and secure environment, a right to an adequate standard of living and to participate in the decision-making process that is affecting their future.”
When Australians rallied across the country in support of the refugees, the Greens’ MP Adam Bandt not only made it clear that the Labor party’s claim that they would ‘manage the camps better’ was no opposition to be proud of (the party having reopened the camps under former leaders Rudd and Gillard) but he cited that under the definition of terror – ‘to use violence and threaten peoples’ lives for political purposes‘ – that Peter Dutton was a terrorist.
So from the UN High Commissioner to the one Australian political party who have always spoken out against offshore detention and then to the men themselves, powerful words were being spoken …
When Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Prime Minister met with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, she outlined an offer to resettle 150 of the Manus refugees in New Zealand. However, Malcolm Turnbull rejected the offer which the NZ leader later deemed unacceptable, wanting to pursue further talks to facilitate a resettlement. The Australian Prime Minister, though, seemed to ignore the public request during the period that the leaders were both present at the East Asia Summit. “It’s the wrong decision to send people to New Zealand because in the end you’ll start the boats, people will fill up the vacancies we’ve created in Nauru, you’ll get the deaths at sea again and I’m just not going to preside over that arrangement,” Peter Dutton said. However in April 2018, it was revealed that despite Dutton’s reluctance, government papers indicated that Australia had asked the New Zealand government to keep its offer on the table, in case plans to re-home Manus Island detainees in the US fell through. However, a memo from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade also revealed that the New Zealand offer was not without caveat – with New Zealand preferring to to accept refugees in family units from Nauru, rather than the single men who were housed on Manus Island.
On 7th November, the PNG Court rejected the application on behalf of the refugees remaining in the centre to restore operations at the RPC (regional processing centre). The Chief Justice indicated that the rights of the Manus detainees may have been breached by the centre’s closure but that the course of action should be to seek damages from PNG and Australian authorities.
On the 9th, the men within the Manus centre were given two days to leave or “force may be used to relocate those who refuse to move voluntarily“. Within a few hours, the remaining fences began to be removed.
Here’s how it felt to the men on the ground …
A few days later, immigration officials returned to destroy water supplies and makeshift shelters, increasing pressure on the men to leave (see photos and footage as this ABC link). Manus police then said they would not forcibly remove the men still in the centre and would allow so-called “voluntary” transfers to continue, despite threats to use force previously. The police also reported that approximately 100 men had left the centre over the preceding days. But the Manus refugees indicated that a number of those who has relocated regretted doing so, finding the new prison-like facilities to be more harsh than the closed Regional Processing Centre (RPC). (Those forced by the lack of food, water and power in the detention centre to relocate to the East Lorengau facility found themselves having to walk back across the island to the deprivation of the ‘closed’ detention facility because of the vulnerability of the alternative.)
Many advocates and news outlets continued to report that the new camps were incomplete and therefore less safe – in relation to both security and amenities – than the original RPC had been when functioning. (Following attacks on refugees in the area of Lorengau and the outspokenness of the local community about not wanting hundreds of foreign men re-housed in that area, the men knew they would be in danger in the alternate facilities.) And despite Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton insisting that the new accommodation was fully operational, reportage and imagery illustrating that was not the case at that time can be viewed here and here.
However the protesting refugees were clear that the prime reason they continued their peaceful opposition to moving to the alternate facilities was that, having committed no crimes, they could never choose to be incarcerated in yet another prison.
After more than two weeks of abandonment by the Australian government, Sudanese refugee Abdul Aziz told Reuters via text message that PNG officials had started to dismantle the centre’s perimeter fences and food was running low. “We are waiting drinking from the rainwater … it’s tense feeling, we don’t have any idea what PNG will do to us,” he said. “Their attitude toward us they are really aggressive.“
That same day, the Australian Medical Association (AMA), having voted unanimously, called for the Federal Government to allow independent doctors and other health experts to assess the health, wellbeing and living conditions of more than 400 asylum seekers still languishing inside the closed detention centre. The government rejected the offer.
On 23 and 24 November, the peacefully protesting refugees were violently removed from the RPC by PNG mobile squad officers wielding batons who forced them onto buses to take them to the alternative facilities at Lorengau.
(There are a number of witness accounts that some of the pet dogs that the detainees had nurtured from strays were thrown from the windows of the buses and killed and in the days that followed, the men displayed wounds and bruises that had been inflicted during their removal.) Although Hillside Haus, the East Lorengau Refugee Transit Centre and West Lorengau Haus had been – according to Peter Dutton and Malcolm Turnbull ‘completed for weeks’, credible representatives of a number of welfare, advocacy and religious organisations – including Tim Costello of World Vision – reported regularly in the weeks that followed that at least one of the new ‘finished’ facilities was still a construction site. For several days at least, around 60 men had still not been provided with accommodation so assertions that there was ‘plenty of room’ proved that the Australian government had again misled the public and the men that they had incarcerated and abandoned.
The Australian government also described the new accommodation as including full medical support but that was (and still is) not the case – particularly when healthcare is required for people suffering not just with chronic and acute illnesses but from trauma and ongoing complex mental health issues. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) requested access to the asylum seekers on Manus and even though they was granted approval to assess the health and wellbeing of the men, when their representatives tried to do so, they were denied access.
When the Australian Immigration Minister said the relocated detainees were ‘lying’ for claiming they were being threatened by locals , video footage contradicted the latest in the continual series of slurs from Peter Dutton on the integrity of the refugees …
But this didn’t prevent the Australian government minister from perpetuating his decrees of “complete nonsense“ and “propaganda“ from his Canberra base, while men like Pakistani refugee, Ijlal Haider, who has witnessed a number of outbursts from local people since his relocation to Lorengau could only keep concluding, “Very dangerous. We every night afraid, we thinking they are coming. … We are not safe here, so please help us.“
On 15 December 2017, news broke via a spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition (the Australian government would not comment, saying that resettlements were a matter for the US authorities) who said that another approximately 60 people from Manus Island had been accepted for resettlement in the US. Then on 23 January 2018, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre released information that another 40 – 50 of the men left on Manus were said to have departed for the United States from Port Moresby to build a new life, under the US deal. In releasing this information, the ASRC stressed that this meant that still “over 800 people remain in Papua New Guinea alone“. And since, on 8 December 2017, US Presidential Proclamation 9645 was fully implemented and the Departments of State and Homeland Security were directed to “restrict the entry of nationals of Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Somalia, Venezuela, and Yemen in order to protect the security and welfare of the United States”, a significant proportion of the thousands of legitimate refugees remaining on Manus now do not have the option of even submitting an application to be considered for resettlement in the United States because of their country of origin. And with the current US President’s ongoing pushes for more ‘extreme vetting’, it seems unlikely that many more will accepted.
The challenges for those hundreds of men left on Manus continued when, in January 2018, refugees began reporting that local people had barricaded the road from the Hillside Haus and West Haus in protest over sewage flowing onto their land from the site of the camps. With ongoing problems before and since the forced relocation of the detainees from the closed RPC in November, this is the fourth blockade protest by local residents due to issues such as:
- the noise of the generator and ongoing construction (on sites that the Australian government has long said are completed) impacting neighbouring families
- a contract dispute that blocked access to and from the East Lorengau Transit Centre and forced one service provider to evacuate its staff from the island
“It’s causing much issue for the local people so they need to fix and until they fix they’re not going to let the barrier open. … [We are] very scared. There is no safety here because fully local people control these places not like the Lombrum camp [the former detention centre],” Shamindan Kanapadhi, a refugee from Sri Lanka living in West Haus said. Security guards told asylum seekers to remain in the compounds for their own safety.
In the same week, another resident of the new camps, indicated that there was a different kind of disruption underway …With the Australian Senate having supported an order for the production of documents and parts of contracts detailing the health, construction and security services to be provided at the Australian-built and controlled immigration centre at West Lorengau, it was in this week too that the (now) Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton refused to do so, saying : “I believe the disclosure of the requested material would, or could reasonably be expected to, cause damage to international relations: specifically, Australia’s relations with Papua New Guinea.” (Since the PNG High Court declared the RPC on Manus Island illegal, the Minister’s concerns for relations with the country seemed inconsistent with the decisions made and actions taken by the Australian government in recent months.) Nick Xenophon Team senator Stirling Griff stated plainly that Mr Dutton’s reasoning “stretches credibility”. “How does, for example, releasing details of the hours medical staff will work, or the range of medical services to be provided by contractor IHMS risk diplomatic relations?”
In the same Guardian report, the Paladin/Kingfisher issue was also clarified. It seemed there was a “standoff over security at the new Australian-built accommodation centres“, with refugees and asylum seekers saying their safety has been compromised by the chaos caused by the dispute. Paladin, co-owned by Australian Craig Thrupp, had a $72m contract to provide security for four months at the three accommodation centres nearby to Lorengau, Manus’s main town. But local company Kingfisher, owned by Manusian businessman Peter Mochon, insisted it should have the security contract. The Guardian reported that Kingfisher staff forcibly took over security at the Manus sites in the week of 15 January, telling Paladin staff to leave. Officials from the Australian Border Force – which retains ultimate control over the offshore immigration regime and the movement of refugees held on Manus and Nauru – remained on Manus attempting to broker a solution.
On 14 February 2018, 18 more refugees left Manus Island for resettlement in the United States. But there are, and will remain, hundreds left behind unless the Australian government finds a solution for them – as is their responsibility according to the UNHCR’s regional protection officer, Rico Salcedo who spoke in Geneva the day before (13 Feb) as the most recent report on conditions on Manus Island was released.
The dangers of being unable to leave Manus Island continue to be revealed regularly. In early April 2018, yet another report of a man who had been determined to be a legitimate refugee from Afghanistan being violently attacked in the island’s main town. The man was stabbed repeatedly with a screwdriver in the shoulders, back and neck when he refused to give his attackers his mobile phone. Behrouz Boochani tweeted about the incident, saying
“This is what the Australian government is doing on Manus Island. …Keeping 600 men in a small town makes many problems. … These are problems created by Australia and PNG. The situation in Manus is very complicated. It creates many problems for refugees and locals. The Australian government is causing harm and knows it.”
The Guardian reported stated that “Civic leaders have been warning for months that the imposition of more a large cohort of single men within the conservative, tight-knit and familial community of Lorengau will prove disastrous.”
But sadly it seems that no warnings from anyone will penetrate the deterrent policies that have evolved into indefensible treatment of so many innocent people whose right to live in safety and peace are being trampled on by a government that continues to label itself as “generous“.
See these posts for more detailed updates/insights:
Much of the background information above was sourced from the following locations where more detail can be found:
UPDATES – AS THEY HAPPENED – include direct links inserted into the text for access to source material which will expand on the content included here
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