What is happening in Manus and what can we do about it?

The situation is becoming increasingly dire for asylum seekers and refugees who have been transferred to offshore processing centres by Australia, particularly for those who find themselves stranded in PNG’s Manus Island.

As explained by our Deputy Director, Maria O’Sullivan, the PNG Supreme Court found in April 2016 that the detention centre in Manus Island is unconstitutional. You can read more about that case and its significance here. Because of that case, the detention centre on Manus Island is due to be shut down on 31 October this year. Water and power have been shut off, cleaning services have ceased, activities such as the use of the gym have ended and doctors and other health professionals will terminate their services at the end of October.

The problem is that approximately 830 men, who have been predominantly recognised as refugees, are still living in the detention centre while it is being shut down. They are living without electricity and running water in unhygienic conditions and there is no certainty about their future. They have held regular protests about the inhumane conditions. The lack of services and facilities is affecting the health and welfare of the refugees, particularly vulnerable men with conditions such as epilepsy or mental health issues.

There is nowhere for the refugees to go for safety. Australia transferred them to PNG and has been paying for their incarceration there for years, but our government is steadfastly refusing to resettle them here. The Australian and PNG governments are trying to resettle the refugees in the PNG community and to accommodate them in a new facility, built by the Australian government, in East Lorengau. There are many problems with the East Lorengau Transit Centre which only has capacity for 280 people, and the resettlement of refugees in the PNG community more generally. Most importantly, refugees do not feel safe and there is good reason for them to fear both their transfer to Lorengau and their abandonment by the Australian government. Numerous refugees have been attacked, robbed and assaulted. For example two Afghan refugees were surrounded by several local men, robbed and beaten with iron bars as they walked from a bus in Lorengau in August of this year. The murder of Reza Berati has shown that the Australian and PNG government cannot keep refugees safe.

A further complicating matter is that PNG is now refusing to keep the refugees in Manus Island once the detention facility shuts down at the end of October. There is no way of knowing what will happen next as there does not seem to be a plan B. A ‘refugee swap’ deal to resettle refugees from Nauru and Manus Island in the United States, reached with the previous Obama administration, now seems uncertain.

The situation is unacceptable and the asylum seekers and refugees transferred to Manus Island by Australia must be evacuated now. The men have suffered a great deal because of Australia’s policies already. Leaked documents have shown that there has been a deliberate effort to make Australia’s detention centre for refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island as inhospitable as possible: there have been numerous, preventable deaths, not to mention mental breakdowns and serious physical deterioration, amongst a group of vulnerable people who sought Australia’s protection. The situation has been so bad that the UN Special Rapporteur against Torture found that numerous aspects of Australia’s policies in PNG violate the right of detainees ‘to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’. Australia and PNG are responsible for serious violations of their international obligations.

The only option to ensure the safety of the refugees and asylum seekers Australia arbitrarily selected to be transferred to PNG and kept on the island, is for a change in Australian policy and the resettlement of the men in Australia. As Malcolm Turnbull explained in his conversation with Donald Trump, ‘if they had arrived by airplane and with a tourist visa then they would be here’. Of course he neglected to mention that Australia routinely refuses to issue tourist visas to people from refugee producing countries, such as Afghanistan and Iran, thus forcing them to get on dangerous boats in order to seek asylum here.

There are important ways we can push for policy change and support refugees offshore. To keep informed about what is happening in the offshore detention centres you can follow refugees on social media as they post updates from within the centres, such as @BehrouzBoochani in Manus, and @ShahriarHatami1 in Nauru. Support groups such Gifts for Manus and Nauru can also use your help, especially financial and logistical support.

The most important thing we can do, however, is to keep up the pressure on the Australian government. There are a lot of important things going on in Australian politics. There is a lot for the human rights community to fight for. Along with other battles, however, we must ensure that we continue to talk about the refugees in our offshore processing centres and we are not distracted away from their human rights concerns. We must remind the Australian government and the refugees themselves that we have not forgotten that they are still there and that they are still suffering.

We need to talk to our friends, our family and our communities about what is going on. We must also be public in our concern. We need to use social media and all avenues available to us to draw attention to the plight of asylum seekers and refugees caught in Australia’s border protection policies. It is important that we do this now because of the especially dire situation the refugees find themselves in at the moment. Now is also an ideal time to act because the government is under increasing pressure to change its policy, both from within Australia and internationally. As shown by Liberal backbencher Russel Broadbent’s recent call for Australia to do something about the refugees on Nauru and Manus, this is a good time to make our voices heard.

Our offshore policies would not continue if they did not enjoy the support of the Australian people or if the Australian government did not think they could get away with human rights abuses. The policy makes no financial sense. The $5 billion spent on offshore processing can and should be spent elsewhere. We can do something about that. We will continue to demand better for ourselves as a country and the people harmed by our policies.

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Azadeh Dastyari

Azadeh Dastyari is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Law and a Deputy Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law.

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