By Colin Packham
The U.N. refugee agency on Tuesday urged Australia to accept New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 refugees from an abandoned Australian-run detention center in Papua New Guinea, as about 450 men remain barricaded inside without food or water.
The asylum seekers have been holed up inside the center for the past two weeks defying attempts by Australia and Papua New Guinea to close the facility, saying they fear for their safety if moved to transit centers.
With many detainees complaining of illness bought about by the unsanitary conditions in the camp, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) urged Australia to allow 150 of them to resettle in New Zealand.
“We urge Australia to reconsider this and take up the offer,” Nai Jit Lam, deputy regional representative at the UNHCR told Reuters.
Most of the asylum seekers are from Afghanistan, Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Syria.
Australia’s “sovereign borders” immigration policy, under which it refuses to allow asylum seekers arriving by boat to reach its shores, has been heavily criticized by the United Nations and human rights groups but has bipartisan political support in Australia.
Australia says allowing asylum seekers arriving by boat to reach its shores would only encourage people smugglers in Asia and see more people risk their lives trying to sail to Australia.
Two motions introduced in Australia’s parliament by the Labor and Green parties, and passed in the upper house on Tuesday, call on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to approve the New Zealand proposal.
“This is a foul and bloody stain on Australia’s national conscience,” Greens senator Nick McKim told reporters.
Turnbull this month rejected the refugee resettlement offer from his New Zealand counterpart, Jacinda Ardern, preferring instead to work through an existing refugee swap deal he negotiated with former U.S. President Barack Obama last year.
Under the U.S. deal, up to 1,250 asylum seekers detained by Australia in Papua New Guinea and Nauru in the South Pacific could be resettled in the United States in return for Australia accepting refugees from Central America. So far, the United States has accepted only 54.
Despite Turnbull rejecting the offer, Ardern this week said it remained on the table and she would seek a second meeting with Turnbull to discuss the “unacceptable” situation inside the Manus island detention center.
Water and electricity to the center were disconnected two weeks ago after Australian security withdrew and the camp closed on Oct. 31. The camp gad been declared illegal by a Papua New Guinea Court.
Papua New Guinea has threatened to forcibly move the men if they remain inside the center. It has set three deadlines but all have passed largely without incident.
Published on Reuters on November 13, 2017.
The Australian and Papua New Guinean authorities must ensure that a tense standoff with refugees on Manus Island does not descend into violence by security forces as the authorities try to move hundreds of people from the refugee detention centre to so-called transit facilities on Manus Island, Amnesty International said.
Tensions have grown on Manus Island in recent weeks, as the hundreds of refugees and asylum-seekers living in the current refugee detention centre have said that they will resist any move because they fear for their safety if moved to new locations on the island.
“The looming move to so-called transit facilities on Manus Island cannot become an excuse to use violence against refugees and asylum seekers. The authorities have a duty to ensure that the PNG security forces, who already have a chequered history of abuse, refrain from using excessive force,” said Audrey Gaughran, Amnesty International’s Director of Global Issues.
The detention centre on Manus Island, where refugees and asylum seekers have suffered for four years as part of Australia’s cruel and illegal ‘offshore processing’ policies, will close on 31 October.
Australian government officials have said that water and electricity at the centre will be turned off after 31 October, and have refused to rule out forcibly transferring those who do not voluntarily leave the premises.
The closure of the detention centre does not mean the end of the ordeal for the refugees as they are being moved to other centres.
More than 600 people are due to be moved to transit facilities over the next few days, including to the East Lorengau Transit Accommodation Centre.
There are serious concerns that the various transit facilities are far too small to house the numbers of refugees, or are not yet completed.
The Lorengau Centre is also close to local communities which could make attacks on the refugees more likely. There have been several attacks by members of the local community – some wielding machetes – against refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island in recent months, which have left individuals badly injured. Neither the PNG nor the Australian authorities have acted to adequately protect the refugees from such violence.
“The closure of the current centre is not a solution if people are simply being moved from one abusive location to another. Reports that the new facilities are unfinished and leave refugees at risk of violence are extremely concerning. Authorities must ensure that the safety and well-being of refugees is given priority,” said Audrey Gaughran.
“The fact that the refugees - who the Australian government has trapped in a system amounting to torture for years - are resisting being moved because they fear for their safety in other locations on the island speaks volumes about the risks they feel they face.”
The closure of the detention centre was announced in 2016 following a ruling by the PNG Supreme Court that the Australian government’s detention of refugees and asylum seekers there is illegal and unconstitutional.
Amnesty International has documented a catalogue of serious human rights violations on Manus Island, including how people are kept in overcrowded compounds in stifling heat without access to adequate medical care, and has called for the centre’s closure, and for the refugees and asylum-seekers to be brought to safety.
“Shuttling refugees from one centre to another is simply papering over the cracks in an abusive system. It does nothing to address the central problem, and indeed may make it even worse. Authorities in Australia should do the only humane thing and immediately bring the refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island to safety in Australia,” said Audrey Gaughran.
“The Australian government must accept its responsibility to protect the human rights of all those who have come under its jurisdiction as people seeking refuge, and put an end to the use of offshore processing centres. The same violations will continue as long as the same cruel and inhuman refugee policies remain in place.”
Published on Amnesty International on October 26, 2017
Amid reports of impending closure and an uncertain resettlement deal with the US, migrants seeking asylum in Australia are stuck in Manus Island's detention center and know alarmingly little about their future.
For the so-called "boat people" unlucky enough to find themselves stuck in one of Australia's infamous offshore detention centers, the future is far from certain and a way out is unclear. The largest center is on Papua New Guinea's (PNG) Manus Island. According to the Australian government, as of December 2016, 866 men seeking asylum in Australia were being detained there.
However, PNG Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia made a surprise announcement Monday that the Manus Island detention center had in fact closed - despite all of the detainees still living in the facility. According to media reports in PNG, the "closure" is merely a technicality.
The detention center has not been moved, but it is now being officially being considered part of the naval base on which it is built. Detainees are also reportedly free to move in and out of the compound.
The move is in ostensible compliance with a 2016 PNG Supreme Court order ruling that the detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island breached the right to personal liberty spelled out in the state constitution and was therefore illegal.
At the time of the ruling, both PNG and Australia appeared to be making progress in talks on how to close the center - although Australia's immigration minister, Peter Dutton, offered no specific details on the future of the detainees beyond a brief statement claiming that "a series of options are being advanced and implemented."
On March 1, Reuters reported that dozens of asylum seekers being detained on Manus Island accepted a cash deal of up to 25,000 Australian dollars (17,800 euros) in exchange for voluntarily returning to their home countries. The 29 men who reportedly left represent the largest number leaving the island in four years.
Other Efforts to resettle some refugees in PNG have failed, with many being forced to return to the detention center after being assaulted or robbed by locals.
The Director of Migration and Border Policy at the Lowy Institute for International Affairs in Sydney, Dr. Jiyoung Song, told DW that there are still too many uncertainties over where the detainees can be relocated to.
"I understand the government is still in negotiation with relevant parties," she said. "Australia hopes that the United States will take them [asylum seekers], but it is still unclear whether the deal will be implemented on which scale or when."
US deal in troubled waters
The potential US solution was the result of a deal made in November 2016 following a year of negotiations with the Australian government. The US had reportedly offered the one-off agreement to resettle refugees currently being held on both Manus Island and Nauru.
But a few months on, the future of the deal is looking less assured. The biggest concern at this stage is the unpredictablity of US President Donald Trump. Although the deal was organized under his predecessor Barack Obama, a change in US administration usually does not threaten finalized negotiations made by a previous government.
"President Trump's anti-immigration and US-first rhetoric has had an impact on his commitment to delivering his predecessor's agreed deal with Australia," said Song, "Mr. Trump abruptly ending his phone call with Prime Minister Turnbull doesn't look like a good signal for his commitment to the deal, although he did say he would honor the deal with extreme vetting over those to be transferred to US soil."
The US's refugee processing system is notoriously long and rigorous, meaning applicants could wait up to two years in offshore detention while processing takes place - time which those stuck on the Manus Island detention center may not have. Shortly after the original deal was made, US Homeland Security officials arrived in Australia to begin the vetting process, although it is unclear if this process has been stalled.
Australia's prime minister has reiterated that recent events will not affect the US's original commitment to take refugees from the offshore detention centers.
But even if the deal is successfully implemented, the women and children being held at the other Australian detention center on Micronesia's Nauru Island are far more likely to be given preference for resettlement in the US, leaving the future of Manus Island detainees even more uncertain in the wake of its alleged imminent closure.
'Ring of steel'
The Manus Island detention center was originally built in 2001 as part of Australia's so-called Pacific Solution - a government policy which saw asylum seekers transported to detention centers on Pacific island nations instead of the Australian mainland.
Although the policy enjoyed bipartisan support, the center on Manus Island was closed for a period of time in 2008 before controversially re-opening in 2012 due to an increase in irregular maritime boat arrivals.
Following an increased number of drownings at sea, the renewed policy centered on the premise that the ends justified the means. Since 2009, more than 600 asylum seekers have died en route to Australia.
The area around the northern coast has subsequently been described as a "ring of steel" by Australian government sources.
Along with its Nauru counterpart, the Manus Island detention center has sparked much controversy, with numerous reports of assault, mental illness and self-harm among detainees.
Notable incidents include the riots in February 2014 which resulted in the murder of 23-year-old Reza Berati and the death of 24-year-old Hamid Kehazaei in August of that year after an urgent medical transfer to the Australian mainland was significantly delayed. In January 2015, up to 700 men took part in a hunger strike which lasted two weeks.
Scarcity of information
Any information coming out of Manus Island tends to raise more questions than it answers.
Immigration expert Song said the current outlook for detainees in offshore detention is bleak, with the Australian government quickly running out of options.
"Australia will have to find another third country option,” she said. "New Zealand has already offered but Australia turned it down as it's too close to Australia. It may try Canada, or go back to the Malaysia option again, which failed under the Gillard government."
"It may revisit the Cambodia option. As far as the public know, only five went there and three have left." Song added that asylum seekers didn't come to Australia to be settled in Cambodia, a developing and non-democratic country that is probably not entirely safe for asylum seekers. "Nobody wants to go, so this option, although it's still alive, is not a working one."
This article was published on DW's website on March 16, 2017.