On Tuesday, the Australian government will close the Manus Island regional processing centre in Papua New Guinea. Arguing that they have no safe place to go, nearly all 742 remaining residents are refusing to leave.
The closure is likely to generate resistance and potentially violence. Tensions continue to build between refugees, local residents and PNG authorities.
Manus – the story so far
The Howard government established the Manus Island and Nauru centres in 2001 as part of the Pacific Solution. Originally, offshore processing was characterised as a short-term response to an influx of asylum seeker boat arrivals.
However, over time, offshore processing has become cemented as a central strategy to prevent asylum seekers reaching Australian territory by boat. The government has argued that offshore processing is necessary to disincentivise dangerous and exploitative people smuggling.
In practice, by preventing the access of asylum seekers to territory under Australian jurisdiction, the government has severely curtailed the rights of vulnerable people. Asylum seekers detained offshore lack access to proper refugee protection and judicial review mechanisms, and are denied basic rights guaranteed under international law.
Australia’s treatment of refugees has been condemned by the international community. Mandatory and indefinite offshore detention contravenes Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This provision protects people from arbitrary detention and upholds their right to liberty and security.
Human rights abuses have been documented in the Manus and Nauru centres. They are overcrowded and provide insufficient medical and psychiatric support.
There have also been documented cases of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of centre security. The poor mental health of many detainees, evidenced by attempts at self-harm and suicide, exposes the mental toll of inhumane living conditions and uncertainty about the future.
In April 2016, the PNG Supreme Court found that the arrangement between PNG and Australia to establish and maintain the Manus centre was unconstitutional. Under PNG law, the government had no power to infringe the right to liberty of the detainees.
As a result, in August 2016, the Australian and PNG governments announced that the Manus centre would close.
Over the past 14 months, Australia has attempted to move detainees from Manus through a range of means. The most prominent strategy has been an agreement with the US to take up to 2,000 people currently in detention on Manus or Nauru and ineligible for transfer to Australia.
This deal became infamous through a controversial leaked phone conversation between Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and US President Donald Trump. To date, a reported 20 people have been resettled in the US via this process.
The closure, and what’s next for the Manus detainees
On October 19, Australian immigration authorities warned detainees that the Manus centre would be closed on October 31. Those remaining were advised to leave before essential services were withdrawn.
The centre is now without electricity and water supplies are soon to be cut. Protective fences are being removed. Broadspectrum, the private company contracted to manage the centre, will hand control to the PNG Navy.
Over the past month, the centre has been progressively dismantled and detainees have been forced into overcrowded conditions. The minimal medical and psychiatric support has been removed and detainees are forced to share scarce amounts of food and sanitary resources.
Those remaining on Manus have been given three options by the Australian government.
Those who have been assessed as refugees may move to a temporary settlement in Lorengau town or transfer to the Nauru centre. The longer-term resettlement path for these people is unclear.
Detainees have the option of returning to their country of origin.
The third option is to seek more permanent settlement in PNG or a third country.
The response from refugees, Manus Islanders, and human rights advocates
Each of these options has been condemned as potentially harmful or dangerous.
Refugees cannot be legally returned to their country of origin, where they may face a risk of persecution. To return a refugee to a place where their life or freedom is threatened is to violate the obligation of non-refoulement.
Further, people can be rendered stateless by efforts to return them to their country of origin, even in the case where they have not gained protection as refugees. For example, Iran will not accept the return of nationals who have sought asylum elsewhere.
The most immediately pressing risks, however, arise with the local movements of detainees on Manus Island. Iranian journalist and asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani reports that those remaining in the centre are determined not to move to Lorengau town.
The fear is that their arrival will be met with violence from the local community. An aggressive response would not be unprecedented given the history of interactions between refugee and local populations.
If you come to Lorengau we will be forced to attack you.
The governor of Manus Island, Charlie Benjamin, has threatened to block the resettlement. Benjamin says the Australian government never consulted the community as to the resettlement and have started construction of the new accommodation facility without prior approval.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ regional representative, Thomas Albrecht, condemns Australia for abdicating its responsibility and putting the onus on the refugees to improve their situation:
Having created the present crisis, to now abandon the same acutely vulnerable human beings would be unconscionable.
With the Manus centre closed, those remaining lack security wherever they are. Considering that PNG sailors attacked the camp in April this year, firing at detainees and buildings, the PNG Navy can hardly be considered an alternative source of protection.
Closure sparks human rights crisis
Extra PNG police are stationed on Manus in anticipation of the closure.
At the 11th hour, the Australian government remains immovable. Recently elected to its first term on the UN Human Rights Council, Australia’s practice in relation to asylum seekers who travel by boat remains an unaddressed blight on its human rights record.
Australia also wears massive economic costs to maintain the policy of mandatory offshore detention for boat arrivals. An estimated A$150-$250 million will be committed to housing those remaining on Manus for 12 months following the closure, with no clarity about what happens next. And another $70 million in damages were recently awarded to Manus detainees against the government.