Refugees in limbo in PNG

4:38 pm on 15 February 2016

Refugee advocates and a local MP have disputed the Papua New Guinea government's claims about resettlement of refugees held on Manus Island.

Manus, like the tiny Pacific Island state of Nauru, is hosting asylum seekers who attempted to reach Australia since 2013 before being intercepted by its naval forces and transferred to Manus for offshore processing.

The asylum seekers at the regional processing centre earlier fled from countries such as Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

Detainees on Manus Island

Detainees on Manus Island Photo: AAP

Refugees processed, future still uncertain

PNG's government this month said that more than half of the over 900 asylum seekers at the Manus centre had now had their refugee status confirmed by the country's Immigration department.

PNG's Foreign Minister this month confirmed that 472 of the people held on Manus had been determined to be refugees. In Rimbink Pato's words, they were now "free to depart from the processing centre and commence settling in PNG".

"61 people have already left the centre to undertake training to prepare for life in PNG. 6 of these have relocated from Manus and started living and working elsewhere in PNG."

However, Ian Rintoul of the Australia-based Refugee Action Coalition claimed that Mr Pato's statements were inaccurate and that PNG still had no dedicated resettlement programme.

"The PNG government continues to make these kind of statements from time to time, usually under some pressure from the Australian government," said Mr Rintoul.

"The fact is there is no resettlement programme in PNG and it's been made very clear that people can't resettle and they can't work on Manus island and people for that reason are not willing to transfer from the detention centre to East Lorengau transit accommodation."

Mr Rintoul said that those refugees who have already moved to the transit centre on Manus were just as vulnerable if not more than before.

"The fact that they moved to East Lorengau doesn't solve any problems for them. There's no resettlement arrangements, no capacity for family reunion, no capacity to work, no capacity to move to other places in Papua New Guinea."

Papua New Guinea Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato.

Papua New Guinea Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato. Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

Since agreeing with Canberra in 2013 to process asylum seekers for Australia, the PNG government has distanced itself from a commitment to resettling all of the refugees.

The PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has spoken of the hope that other regional countries would help resettle refugees as part of the "regional processing" solution.

However, Mr Pato has indicated that PNG will resettle a significant amount of them.

"Many of these refugees have skills that are in short supply in PNG and are needed by employers in order to grow our economy," the foreign minister said.

"They will be provided some short-term support to establish themselves in locations where they can obtain jobs."

But in a country with few jobs for locals, there are signs that PNG communities are against the prospect of refugees moving in to the employment market, and are unsure about the integration of foreign culture into Melanesian society.

Warning over resettlement in PNG

The Manus MP, Ronnie Knight, said the leadership in his province had made it clear all along that it would not accept refugees.

He warned about growing social problems around the presence of refugees in the community.

"So I'm just seeing the situation escalating in the next few months or years. I really believe that something should be done quickly. I'm not against the asylum seekers. Maybe they have genuine cause to leave their country but they did it the wrong way and they ended up in this situation."

Mr Knight felt that Australia should take more of the lead in finding a third country for the refugees.

"Because in Papua New Guinea these people will not be able to go and beat sago in somebody else's patch and they will not be able to go fishing in someone else's waters - they'll end up being speared or murdered, and that'll be the next problem."

The Manus Island Detention Centre in PNG

Staff accommodation block at Manus Island Detention Centre in PNG Photo: EMTV

At a time of unprecedented flow of refugees around the world, Australia's management of those seeking refuge within its borders continues to draw sharp criticism.

Human Rights Watch's Asia Director Brad Adams said conditions at the Manus centre remained poor and that reports continued to emerge about abuse of detainees.

Like Ronnie Knight, he argued that Canberra should take responsibility for lumping PNG with the problem.

"You know it's a very poor country and it's an outrage that Australia is pushing its problems on a poorer country essentially by buying them off," said Mr Adams.

"They're asking for trouble to drop large numbers of refugees into a country that has no capacity to deal with them and no history of dealing with this kind of problem."

Brad Adams suspected Australia didn't genuinely want there to be resettlement for these refugees, at least to countries where people would be happy to go, because it believed this would act as a pull factor for more "boat people".

Meanwhile, Rimbink Pato said those people on Manus not deemed to be refugees would be required to go home, and could either be assisted to return voluntarily or else be deported.

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