Australia urged to meet moral obligation on Manus

6:15 pm on 18 August 2016

Australia has a moral obligation to bring refugees and asylum seekers held in offshore processing centres back to the mainland, according to a prominent human rights lawyer.

Canberra said it had agreed to close the Manus Island offshore processing centre in Papua New Guinea, following an April PNG Supreme Court ruling that holding people against their will on Manus was illegal.

The Manus Island Detention Centre in PNG

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

There are about 900 men held on Manus, having been forcibly transferred there by Australia since 2013 after fleeing from conflict zones such as Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Canberra reiterated that the men on Manus won't be resettled in Australia.

But pressure is growing for the people to be brought to Australia, amid ongoing revelations about abuses at Manus and the country's other offshore processing centre in Nauru.

However Julian Burnside QC said Australia's government had shown no inclination to fulfil its moral obligations.

"And let's not forget, the people on Manus were taken there by force against their will after they had arrived in Australia, and we have paid hundreds of millions of dollars to keep them there, locked up," Mr Burnside said.

"Now if that doesn't lead to a moral obligation to help look after them, then I don't know what does."

Mr Burnside said he thought mainstream opinion in Australia was still in favour of the hard line that had been taken on so-called boat people.

But he said the reason for that was the public had been misled by politicians and the country's Murdoch-dominated press.

"What the Australian coalition party's done in the last 15 years is tag boat people as illegal, which is false because they don't commit any offence by coming the way they do, seeking asylum, and they've dressed up the whole operation as border protection, which is nonsense," he said.

"We don't need to be protected from people who are simply looking for a place to be safe."

When the PNG and Australian governments initially agreed in 2012 on the arrangement to have the asylum seekers processed on Manus, it was understood that any found to be refugees would be resettled in PNG or a third country but not Australia.

Residents of the Manus Island processing centre queue for food.

Residents at the Manus Island processing centre Photo: Behrouz Boochani

However, the refugees have indicated they do not want to be resettled in PNG, which lacks a reputable resettlement policy, leaving questions over where they will be taken when the centre closes.

Mr Burnside said he wouldn't preclude that Canberra might transfer the people held on Manus to Christmas Island, which was part of Australia and also hosted a detention centre.

"They're talking about getting these people resettled in other countries. Most other countries would look at us and say: well, your problem, you fix it."

Earlier this year, a New Zealand offer to take 150 refugees from Australia's offshore centres was rebuffed by Canberra, but Prime Minister John Key said today it remained in place.

"I mean it's there, the Australian government's well and truly aware of it. If that's something the Australians want to take up, they'll come to New Zealand and exercise that right and they've got the right to do that."

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