29 Apr 2016

Australian and PNG govts scramble over Manus

10:02 am on 29 April 2016

By Jamie Tahana, RNZ International

The fate of hundreds of people detained illegally on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island remains uncertain, after a PNG court struck a blow to Canberra's policy of sending asylum seekers abroad.

850 asylum seekers and refugees have been languishing in the Manus compounds for up to three years, having been transferred there under Australia's offshore processing policy.

However on Tuesday, PNG's Supreme Court declared their detention unconstitutional.

Because the asylum seekers had not entered PNG of their own accord, they were not guilty of immigration violations, and the court found that holding them ignored constitutional protections of personal liberty.

A day later, the Prime Minister Peter O'Neill announced that the centre would be closed, although he did not specify a time frame other than to say that PNG would "immediately ask the Australian government to make alternative arrangements for the asylum seekers."

Manus clash, PNG

Life for asylum seekers on Manus: hot, heavily guarded and psychologically traumatic. Photo: Supplied

That ruling has left the governments of both PNG and Australia with a complicated set of challenges as they try to work out what to do with the 850 men detained on Manus.

They are there as a result of Australia's hardline approach to immigration which forbids asylum seekers who arrive by boat from staying in Australia.

The policy has come under sustained criticism from human rights advocates and the United Nations.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his cabinet colleagues (left side of table) meet with his PNG counterpart Peter O'Neill and members of his National Executive Council.

Manus is an issue for two governments: Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his cabinet colleagues on the left side of table; his PNG counterpart Peter O'Neill and colleagues on the right. Photo: Supplied


In further fallout, shares in Broadspectrum, the company which runs Australia's detention centres in the Pacific, were placed in a trading halt on Thursday.

In a letter to the Australian stock exchange yesterday, the company asked for trading to be halted following the PNG government's announcement.

After the trading halt, Broadspectrum advised its investors to accept a buyout offer because of the uncertainty surrounding the Manus decision.

But Peter Dutton, Australia's immigration minister, remained adamant that none of the asylum seekers would be allowed into Australia.

"I've been very clear and I repeat it again today: the men off Manus Island will not be settling permanently in Australia and we'll work with the PNG government to help them return home or back to third countries," Mr Dutton said in an interview with Channel Nine on Thursday.

The Manus Island Detention Centre in PNG

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

But an Australian refugee lawyer, David Manne, said past attempts to resettle in third countries had failed.

These include Cambodia, where a $40 million deal that Canberra struck fell apart after only five people were resettled, and an attempted deal with Kyrgyzstan, a country which Australia has warned its citizens not to travel to.

"The future remains completely shrouded in uncertainty because the government doesn't have a proper plan in place for 850 men who are trapped in Manus Island, who the court has said must be freed," said Mr Manne.

No clear solution

Peter Dutton said that Canberra had anticipated the ruling for months, but this week's ruling has laid bare that the Malcolm Turnbull-led government had no clear solution for what to do with the asylum seekers on Manus.

Mr Dutton hinted at the possibility of the Manus facility transferring into an "open centre" arrangement, similar to that at Australia's other asylum seeker processing centre on Nauru.

But that is unlikely as the Manus Island centre is within the confines of a Naval base which has restricted access.

PNG's High Commissioner to Australia, Charles Lepani, said talks between the two governments would be held early next week, but his prime minister, Peter O'Neill, wanted the centre closed down.

Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill.

PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said he would ask the Australian government to make alternative arrangements for the men detained on Manus. Photo: PNG PM's office

Another solution proffered by Mr Dutton was to transfer all 850 asylum seekers to Nauru, which he said had the capacity to hold them.

A former Nauru President, Sprent Dabwido, who signed the agreement to reopen the centre in 2012, felt it was viable.

"The actual capacity of Nauru is to fit comfortably 1500 people," he said.

"Right now I think we have only about 300 people on the island. But yeah, if you bring in the 850 we should still be able to hold them all comfortably."

However the centre on Nauru has its own problems. It has been plagued with allegations of abuse and regular protests, and just this week six asylum seekers there attempted to commit suicide.

One man was on Thursday evacuated from Nauru to Australia in a critical condition after he set himself on fire in protest over the treatment of asylum seekers.

Former Nauru president Sprent Dabwido

Former Nauru president Sprent Dabwido Photo: supplied

"It can't go on like this"

Mr Dabwido said if Nauru was to take those from PNG, then Canberra would need to find another solution, saying they could not be warehoused on the island forever.

"If you leave them on an island with no hope, with no final destination, no resolve, then these issues will come up," said Mr Dabwido.

"They want to move somewhere else and because the Australian government is preventing them from getting an answer to that, then all sorts of problems have come up."

David Manne said the limbo which asylum seekers on Manus found themselves in, and Canberra's scramble to find a solution, were evidence that Australia's hardline approach was unravelling, and a solution needed to be found.

The policies of offshore processing in Nauru and Papua New Guinea were chaotic and causing tremendous suffering, according to Mr Manne.

"They are unsustainable in either legal, moral, financial or practical terms and must be brought to an end at some point," he said. "It can't go on like this."

But the offshore processing policy is unlikely to change much, particularly with a general election just around the corner.

Australian leaders have said that its policy has led to a steady decrease in the number of attempted arrivals by sea, and it has broad support from both of Australia's main political parties as well as popular electoral support.

Australia's opposition immigration spokesperson, Richard Marles, said Canberra should negotiate with PNG to change its laws in order to make detention legal and offer more money.

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