Manus Island 'smeared' by refugee detention

4:06 pm on 21 December 2018

The reputation of Papua New Guinea's Manus Island has been smeared and its people need to be compensated, a church leader says.

The 111th daily protest at the detention centre, 19-11-17.

The 111th daily protest at the detention centre, 19-11-17. Photo: supplied

Michael Kuweh is a layman and spokesperson for the Catholic Diocese of Manus.

The indefinite detention of refugees for nearly six years on the island has brought it into disrepute, Mr Kuweh said.

"This is a place that has been tarnished because the Australian government dumped its responsibilities on the island and it has affected nearly 70,000 people on Manus," he said.

"It's not the fault of the refugees, it is the fault of the Australian government who decided to follow a 'Pacific Solution'."

The foisting of hundreds of young, male refugees on the island has led to incidents of hostility and violent conflict with locals.

About 40 children have been born to refugees and local women some of whom have reportedly turned to prostitution.

"They say 'Manus is like hell... Manus is not a place to live because it is very dangerous.' This was never part of our culture or image that was promoted, only when the refugees came around," Mr Kuweh said.

"Manusians are on the defensive," he said. "We are being labelled as a place that no one should visit. We have been smeared beyond all description."

Michael Kuweh.

Michael Kuweh. Photo: Facebook / Michael Kuweh

About 600 men remain in detention on the island in three transit centres near Lorengau town. Seven Manus refugees have died since 2014 through murder, medical neglect and suicide.

Suicide attempts and self harm have escalated since the men were forcibly transferred about 30 kilometres from the prison camp at Lombrum in November 2017.

In September that year, the Australian government paid about 1300 Manus detainees $AU70 million in compensation for suffering in conditions branded inhumane and torturous by a UN special rapporteur.

Mr Kuweh said Australia now needed to make amends with the people of Manus, who wanted the detention project "out".

"The Manus people are no longer good in the eyes of the world because the island has been branded 'not a good place to be'," he said.

"The Australian government owes us a gift package."

"And in part of that, they must come to help restore the image of the province."

While development on the mainland had been funded through the deal PNG struck with Australia to detain the refugees, the layman said the island only got "spinach".

Some of its roads had been resurfaced, some schools had been improved and a market and a police station had been built but that was not enough, Mr Kuweh said.

"The gift package for compensation should look around five or six billion kina ($US1.5 billion)," he said. "It could be more."

Mr Kuweh said Manus Island had a long and unsuccessful history of accommodating refugees and people displaced by conflict.

During World War II about 5000 Manusians were forced off their land when America captured the island from Japan and built military bases, Mr Kuweh said.

The USS Mindanao damaged in an explosion in Manus Island's Seeadler Harbour, 1944.

The USS Mindanao damaged in an explosion in Manus Island's Seeadler Harbour, 1944. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Then in 1968 when PNG was an Australian colony, refugees from West Papua fleeing Indonesian occupation were settled on Manus in a camp near Lorengau.

Some of their descendants are still there.

"It has been a burden on us for a long time," Mr Kuweh said. "We would prefer this refugee thing goes. We have our hands full."

Climate change was likely to create more refugees as "80 percent of Manus people are coastal inhabitants and islanders," he said.

But the planned resurrection of the naval base on Manus Island could add to the island's unfortunate legacy of displacement.

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