The situation on Manus Island
In April 2016 the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea (PNG) ruled that the Australian offshore detention centre on Manus island breached the country's constitution and that it was illegal, resulting in its closure. Today, more than 600 refugees remain stranded on the island. Australia refuses to take responsibility for the refugees and has abandoned them without proper support. Many asylum seekers on the island have attempted self-harm or suicide, while even more who suffer acute physical and mental health issues are not being treated by doctors.
When the centre was closed in 2017 refugees were told to move to alternative accommodation on the island, but fearing for their safety, around 600 people refused to go. Supplies to the centre were cut off and the remaining refugees were forcibly removed to new accommodation and told to wait to be resettled. Since then, through a peculiar transfer deal with the USA, some people from Manus and Nauru (where another Australian offshore detention centre is in operation) have been resettled there. However, Trump's “Muslim ban” – the policy of refusing entry to any nationals of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen – bars many refugees from being able to move there.
The conditions that Australia's policies have created for hundreds of innocent refugees are appalling and are in violation of numerous international laws and recommendations from UN officials. Despite doing everything in their corrupt power to shut the public off from any information and news from Manus Island (and Nauru), we continue to hear about horrific experiences, outright human rights violations, sexual violence, deaths and suicides of people subjected to this regime, and we are told, time and again, that the centres are a worsening health and humanitarian crisis.
How did asylum seekers end up in PNG?
Australia set up the Manus Regional Processing Centre in 2001 as part of its “Pacific Solution.” This “solution” came as an extreme response of the Liberal Howard government to the “Tampa affair,” in which the government refused a Norwegian freighter called MV Tampa carrying 433 refugees rescued from a sinking fishing vessel in the open ocean to enter Australian waters. This constituted a failure of obligations under the UN international law and a beginning of Australia's ongoing disregard for those laws when it came to the question of refugees and borders. It was a few days after this event that the government introduced the “Border Protection Bill 2001” which gave it power to remove any ship in the territorial waters of Australia with use of force and which ruled that no asylum applications can be made by people on board any ship. The government followed this with excising Christmas Island and a number of other coastal islands from Australia's migration zone. As part of the “Pacific Solution” those onboard the Tampa were transported to detention camps on Nauru, a small island country in the Pacific. As part of the “solution” Nauru and Manus Island were set up as offshore detention centres in operation from 2001 to 2008, and then again from 2012.
The 2001 “Border Protection Bill” was devised under the rhetoric of “stopping the boats” by all means necessary. The government waged a propaganda campaign presenting refugees arriving on boats as “queue jumpers” or “illegal,” which are both grossly inaccurate and misleading terms. The so-called ‘queue’ simply doesn't exist. lLess than 1% of the world's refugees are resettled every year and the UNHCR system works more like a lottery than a queue, while in many countries the UNHCR doesn't operate at all. Australia offers limited spaces for resettlement of refugees through the UNHCR. It is also not illegal to come to Australia without travel documents for the purpose of claiming asylum, and the international Refugee Convention states that people shouldn't be punished for doing so. But rather than abiding by its responsibility to refugees seeking asylum here, Australia implemented a brutal policy of deterrence. In order to do this, they had to portray asylum seekers as illegal, immoral and unwanted in this country. They fabricated stories, including that the asylum seekers on board the SIEV (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel) 4 had thrown their children overboard in order to secure rescue and entry to Australia.
Deaths & profiteering on Manus Island
More than 5 billion dollars has already been spent on running the prison camps on Manus Island (and Nauru) since 2012. Several people have died as a direct result of conditions in these camps. On Manus, Reza Barati was brutally murdered by at least 2 security guards during a riot in February 2014. Hamid Kehazaei died from a minor infection for which he didn’t receive effective treatment, and his transfer to better facilities was delayed by the Department of Immigration. Faysal Ishak Ahmed suffered repeated seizures but was denied medical treatment and died after he struck his head during a seizure. Hamed Shamshiripour was found dead near a school on the island. He had deteriorating mental health which was ignored by Australian authorities. Rajeev Rajendran was found dead in a Lorengau hospital, presumably after he took his own life. Salim Kyawning jumped from a moving vehicle and died from severe injuries at the scene after spending 5 years on the island with a long history of mental illness. These are only some of a total of 37 deaths in onshore and offshore processing facilities since 2010.
Australia contracts massive corporations to run these camps who are more interested in profiteering from the industry than providing the required services. One such company is the global security firm G4S. G4S is involved in maintenance and servicing of Israeli prisons, checkpoints and settlements in the West Bank. They have been implicated in multiple accounts of abuse, harassment and intimidation of asylum seekers internationally, including the killing of an Angolan asylum seeker Jimmy Mibenga during his forced deportation from the UK.
Violating International Law
Papua New Guinea, like Australia, is a signatory to the international Refugee Convention, which outlines the rights of refugees and asylum seekers and the obligations of states towards them. One of these obligations is “providing the possibility of assimilation and naturalization to refugees”. Australia's policy of no settlement for anyone who arrived after July 2013, combined with the provision of precarious temporary visas instead of permanent protection for asylum seekers detained onshore, is a clear disregard to the above obligation. Moreover, Papua New Guinea has failed to recognize most West Papuan refugees who have settled there as permanent residents and consistently encourage them to return to West Papua despite no commitment from the Indonesian government to protect them. For those who remain in PNG, citizenship options are limited and expensive and living conditions are often very poor, as refugees receive little to no support.
Australia has been found guilty of almost 150 violations of international law over its practice of indefinite detention of refugees. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture claimed that various aspects of Australia’s border regime policies violate the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In 2015, under the Australian Border Force Act, the Australian government made it illegal to report abuse within the centres, with a 2 year jail sentence for “entrusted persons” if they continue to speak out about the conditions and human rights violations occurring in the camps.
Whilst the PNG found detention of refugees on Manus illegal, a Australia is soon to be brought to the UN Human Rights Committee. The Human Rights Law Centre, with a group of 17 families, are challenging Australia’s policy of deliberately and permanently separating families as a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Some families have been separated because different members arrived before or after July 19, 2013, when then prime minister Kevin Rudd ordered that anyone arriving by boat from that date would never be allowed into Australia. Other families have been separated when members have been transferred to mainland Australia for medical reasons. Australia refuses any possibility of family reunification.
What are we doing?
The only information that we have from Manus Island these days is from the reporting and social media of some incredibly strong and vocal individuals who are still held hostage there. The Australian government has long lost any credibility when it comes to communication around detention centres and all aspects of their border regime.
We want to travel to Manus to speak to those who are there and to bring gifts and messages from the First Nations people of Australia and West Papua, including the Original Nations passports sent by Arabunna Elder uncle Kevin Buzzacott. We want to show the refugees stranded on the island and are being tortured in our name that they are not forgotten, and that we stand with them. We want to bring to the world's attention to the imprisonment and abuse of innocent people by the Australian government.
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