Explainer: the medevac repeal and what it means for asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru



Jacqui Lambie has made a secret deal with the Coalition government to secure the repeal of medevac.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Alex Reilly, University of Adelaide

After much negotiation, the government has secured the repeal of the medical evacuation law – known as “medevac” – after making a secret deal with Senate cross-bencher Jacqui Lambie.

So what does this mean for those held in offshore detention?

Understanding the numbers

The number of refugees and asylum seekers in Nauru and Manus Island peaked at 2,450 in April 2014 (1,273 on Manus and 1,177 on Nauru) and has been dropping ever since. As of this week, about 466 asylum-seekers and refugees remain offshore – 208 on Papua New Guinea and 258 on Nauru.

Of the nearly 2,000 who are no longer in offshore detention, 632 have been transferred to the United States, 17 died in detention, mainly due to suicide, several hundred have been deported after their claims had been rejected, or after returning “voluntarily” with financial assistance from the Australian government. Of these returnees, 33 have been reported dead.




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In addition, the majority of those who are no longer on Nauru and PNG have been transferred to Australia for medical treatment. Prior to the Medevac law, 1,246 people had been transferred to Australia for medical reasons, including accompanying family. “Less than a handful” of these were returned to Nauru or PNG. The most recent return was on April 15 2018.

The number of medical transfers jumped dramatically from 2017-18, when there were 35 transfers, to 461 from July 2018 to the passing of the medevac law in February 2019. Since then, a further 288 were transferred under the earlier system of approvals.

According to Senates Estimates, between March 2 2019 when Medevac became law, and October 21 2019, 135 refugees and asylum seekers from Nauru and PNG have been transferred for emergency medical treatment under this process.

Why has there been such a focus on medevac?

The primary failure of the policy of removing asylum seekers to Nauru and PNG for processing has been the inability to find permanent resettlement options for those who are found to be refugees under the UN Convention.

Having ruled out resettlement in Australia, the government has scrambled to find other countries to take in the asylum seekers. In 2016, then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was fortunate to find President Barack Obama open to a resettlement arrangement, which he subsequently convinced Donald Trump to honour.

But this has been the only option on the table. There was an aborted deal with Cambodia, and a small number have been resettled in Canada through private sponsorship. The government inexplicably refused an offer from New Zealand to resettle 150 refugees each year, concerned they could then enter Australia via New Zealand.

With limited prospects for resettlement, and the mental health of those on Nauru and PNG always vulnerable and quickly deteriorating, medical transfers have been an important strategy. The increasing number of people transferred for medical reasons is a result of the escalating medical emergency.

Prior to medevac, transfers were at the discretion of the minister. When the minister refused a medical transfer to Australia, people were forced to challenge the exercise of the minister’s discretion in the courts.

After protracted legal actions, Australian courts routinely ordered the minister to transfer people for urgent medical treatment to fulfil Australia’s duty of care to people in offshore places. Medevac replaced this cumbersome process with a medical assessment by two doctors that was reviewed by an independent health advice panel. The minister maintained the power to refuse a transfer on security grounds.




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Now that the medevac law has been repealed, people will once again rely on ministerial discretion for a medical transfer. One would expect that most, if not all, of those remaining on Nauru and PNG will eventually make an application for a transfer. This is because spending up to six years in these places with limited facilities, and an indefinite timeframe for their detention, will eventually undermine the mental health of even the most robust of those who remain.

Recent figures released by the Department of Home Affairs suggest there are currently 418 applications for a transfer out of the remaining 466 people remaining offshore.

The tragedy is that these applications will not be assessed on purely medical grounds, and are likely to be long and protracted.

Repeal of medevac and the end game for offshore detention

The government’s repeal of the medevac law will do little more than delay transfers of the last remaining refugees held offshore. We may never know the conversations between the government and Jacqui Lambie, but perhaps she was persuaded that there was value in the government maintaining its uncompromising line on asylum seekers arriving by boat, while medical transfers continue unabated.

The majority of those now in Australia as a result of a medical transfer live in alternative places of detention while they access medical treatment. In time, the only realistic option is to grant these people a visa to stay in Australia. This should happen quietly, while the government maintains its firm but unrealistic line of no one ever being resettled in Australia.

These people can then become part of the Australian community, adults can find work, children can go to school. If this happens, there will be no resumption of boats arriving from Indonesia, and we can be rid of the blight of offshore detention.The Conversation

Alex Reilly, Director of the Public Law and Policy Research Unit, Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bougainville has voted to become a new country, but the journey to independence is not yet over


Anna Powles, Massey University

The Autonomous Region of Bougainville, a chain of islands that lie 959 kilometres northwest of Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, has voted unequivocally for independence.

The referendum saw 85% voter turnout during three weeks of voting, with 97.7% of voters choosing independence from Papua New Guinea over the second option, which was remaining, but with greater autonomy from PNG. As the Bougainville Referendum Commission stated, the numbers told an important story, reflecting the support for independence across genders and age groups.

It’s a momentous event, not only because it could a new country, but also because the referendum marks an important part of a peace agreement signed almost 20 years ago. The 2001 Bougainville Peace Agreement ended the deeply divisive nine year conflict (1988-1997) that lead to the deaths of approximately 20,000 people, or about 10% of Bougainville’s population.

The referendum, however, is non-binding. The ultimate outcome will be determined by a vote in Papua New Guinea’s National Parliament following negotiations between the Papua New Guinean government and the Autonomous Bougainville Government.

But as former President James Tanis said to me hours after the result was announced:

we survived the war, ended the war, delivered a successful referendum, what else can now stop us from becoming a successful independent nation?

China’s interest in Bougainville

For the broader region, an independent Bougainville has a number of implications. Firstly, it sends a strong signal for other self-determination movements across the Pacific, including in New Caledonia which will hold a second referendum for independence in 2020.

There are also geopolitical implications. The referendum has taken place during a period of heightened strategic anxiety among the Pacific’s so-called traditional partners – Australia, New Zealand and the United States, as well as the United Kingdom, France and Japan.

There have long been concerns China will seek to curry influence with an independent Bougainville. As one Bougainvillean leader informed me, Chinese efforts to build relationships with Bougainville’s political elite have increased over the past few years.

Beijing’s interest in Bougainville is two-fold: first, it is seeking to shore up diplomatic support in the Pacific Islands region, thereby reducing support for Taiwan which lost a further two Pacific allies this year. And second, to access to resources, namely fisheries and extractive minerals.

Although it will be tempting for many in Canberra, Washington and Wellington to view an independent Bougainville through the current strategic prism – adhering to narratives about debt-trap diplomacy – doing so undermines the importance of local dynamics and the resilience of Bougainville people.

An independent Bougainville navigating a more disordered and disruptive international environment will need nuanced grounded advice, rather than speculation.

The road ahead for Bougainville will be challenging and it will need its friends – particularly New Zealand and Australia.

The much vaunted respective “Pacific Reset” and “Pacific Step Up” policies provide entry points for the kind of genuine engagement and support that Bougainville will require in the coming years.

Celebration with cautious anticipation

Following the result’s announcement, Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape said his government had heard the voice of Bougainvilleans, and the two governments must now develop a road map that leads to lasting political settlement.

And Bougainville Referendum Commission chairman Bertie Ahern urged all sides to recognise the result and said the vote was about “your peace, your history, and your future” and reflected “the power of the pen over weapons”. Acknowledging the result is non-binding, Ahern said:

the referendum is one part of that ongoing journey.

And here lies the challenge. The post-referendum period was always going to be one of celebration, cautious anticipation and the management of expectations.

As one of Bougainville’s formidable women leaders told me, there are concerns about security in the post-referendum period as expectation turns to frustration if there are perceived delays in determining Bougainville’s future political status.

What’s more, the negotiations are likely to take a long time, since there’s no deadline they’re required to meet.

There are, however, critical milestones that still need to be hit first. This includes the Autonomous Bougainville Government elections, the first elections following the referendum, so will likely see intensified politicking as politicians jockey for a potential role in building an independent Bougainvillean state.

The Papua New Guinea’s national elections are also scheduled for 2022. The risk in both cases is that Bougainville’s future becomes a political pawn.

An independent Bougainville will face significant challenges and diverse choices.

Not least of which is Bougainville’s economic security and the choices that will need to be made about the Panguna Mine, the gold and copper mine at the heart of much of the conflict, and fisheries, once the new nation’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone is created.

A young nation built on a past mired by the extremes of resource nationalism, Bougainville has difficult decisions to make about how it secures its economic self-reliance.The Conversation

Anna Powles, Senior Lecturer in Security Studies, Massey University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Everything but China is on the table during PNG prime minister’s visit


Tess Newton Cain, The University of Queensland

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape is visiting Australia this week, his first overseas trip since he was elevated to that office in June this year. And it’s the first time Scott Morrison has hosted an international leader in Australia since he was re-elected as prime minister in May.

This week’s visit has been positioned as the first of what will be an annual meeting between the leaders. It indicates a stepped up relationship, one that adds to Morrison’s growing focus on building personal relationships throughout the region: in Vanuatu, Fiji and Solomon Islands.




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There are many things the two leaders have to discuss, from a naval base development to asylum seekers on Manus Island. But on arrival, Marape was clear that he did not plan to discuss his country’s relationship with China.

Marape restated PNG’s overall position on foreign policy: that of being “friends to all and enemies to none”. But that didn’t prevent the Australian media asking Marape questions about China during a joint press conference on Monday.

One journalist asked if Marape was concerned about potential governance problems associated with increased Chinese investment in his country. His response could not have been more straightforward:

Every businessman and woman is welcome in our country, and the Chinese investors will not receive any special treatment and preference, just like Australian investors will not receive any special favour or treatment.

Many in the Australian media and policy community would like to know much more about the relationship between PNG and China, as they wonder how it will affect Australia’s influence with their nearest neighbour.

Belt and Road Initiative

As we have seen elsewhere in the region, the relationship between PNG and China has become more developed in recent years.

Under the previous PNG prime minister, Peter O’Neill, PNG became the second Pacific Islands nation to sign on to the Belt and Road Initiative in June 2018.

O’Neill participated in the Belt and Road Initiate Forum earlier this year, and indicated that he foresaw PNG becoming even more involved in projects for the global infrastructure and trade strategy.

O’Neill resigned in May, and it’s yet to be seen whether Marape will participate in projects for Belt and Road Initiative.




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In any case, one thing Marape has made very clear during this visit to Australia is that he’s looking for opportunities to diversify the PNG economy beyond the resources sector. He is particularly focused on growing the agricultural sector, which will require additional investment in infrastructure to supply domestic and export markets adequately.

It’s not always easy to determine the extent of Chinese aid, investment and loans to countries like PNG. But Sarah O’Dowd, an Australian National University researcher, has calculated that at the end of 2018, PNG owed approximate A$588 million in external debt to China. This represented 23.7% of the total external debt.




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Australia provides the largest amount of aid and investment into PNG in the world. But the perception in Canberra remains that Australia’s influence in its nearest neighbour is being diluted, and that this needs to be addressed for strategic purposes.

Asylum seekers and a naval base on Manus Island

Given the nature and importance of the relationship between Australia and PNG, it’s not surprising this bilateral meeting has been prioritised ahead of next month’s Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Tuvalu. Their meeting allows for Morrison and Marape spend some time getting to know each other before they meet with a larger group of Pacific leaders.

Of the various announcements made on Monday, not much was new. There was a dollar commitment (A$250 million) to last year’s joint announcement by PNG, Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Japan to bring electricity to 70% of Papua New Guinean people by 2030.

There was a passing reference to the joint redevelopment of the Lombrum naval base on Manus island by PNG, Australia and the USA, also announced last year at the APEC meeting held in Port Moresby.




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It’s significant that the PNG delegation includes Charlie Benjamin, who is governor of the Manus province. He has already expressed strong reservations about this proposed redevelopment of the naval base. And he is not alone, with other commentators noting that such a development doesn’t necessarily sit well with PNG’s non-aligned status.

The development also provoked criticism from Beijing, which had apparently been seeking an agreement from the PNG government to develop the site.

Benjamin has a powerful voice, and he made good use of it during his own impromptu press conference on Monday.

He used the opportunity to hammer home what has been the biggest thrust of the PNG message to Australia during the visit so far: the ongoing presence of asylum seekers and refugees on Manus and elsewhere in PNG.

Benjamin has made it clear that the time has come for Australia to “step up” and resettle the refugees in his province to another country.

While Marape may feel he has secured some sort of commitment from Morrison to establish a timetable for bringing this bit of the “Pacific Solution” to an end, the lack of detail about what that timetable is may prove a tricky sell back home.The Conversation

Tess Newton Cain, Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Political Science & International Studies, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

In the post-APEC scramble to lavish funds on PNG, here’s what the country really needs



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A student does his homework near a solar power kit in remote PNG – apparently charging his phone or looking up something on the internet.
Geoff Miller/University of Queensland

Mark Moran, The University of Queensland

If you set out by dinghy from the northern-most inhabited part of Australia you will make landfall in Papua New Guinea (PNG) fairly soon.

Boigu Island, part of Queensland, is the most northerly island in the Torres Strait. With its own Australia Post outlet, it is less than ten kilometres from the PNG coast, an area known as South Fly District, part of Western Province. (Fly refers to Fly River, a major feature of the area.)

PNG, a country often overlooked by the Australian public, is enjoying the fierce competition among foreign powers for influence in the country after APEC ended in stalemate and heightened US-China tensions. APEC was held in Port Moresby, PNG’s capital, earlier this week.




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For PNG, the attention may well translate to development funds. Already, the US has pledged to work with Australia to upgrade Lombrum naval base on Manus Island, in what is widely seen as a counter to rising influence from Beijing in the region.

Fishermen at Daru, the capital of PNG’s Western Province, pictured in 2006 as local police cracked down on illegal fishing.
Royal PNG Constabulary

But if foreign powers really want to make a difference to PNG, one of the poorest in the region, then funding equipment like telecommunications gear and solar power kits would be widely welcomed. One key benefit would be using mobile phones to transfer money – instead of traipsing long distances to a bank in town.

No fewer than 85% of PNG citizens live in rural and remote areas, it is estimated – so items like these are capable of making an enormous difference in their lives.

Much talk of infrastructure of late has involved the heavy duty type – ports, rail, military bases and the like. But as we all know, the biggest revolution around the globe is internet access.




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Stepping into remote villages in the South Fly, one is viscerally confronted with the lack of national expenditure or international finances of any kind.

Life in rural PNG has been described in terms of its “subsistence affluence.” The people are friendly and the land is fertile, with reliable rainfall.

But the lack of roads or public transport, and access to cash, means that opportunities for enterprise and employment remain extremely low. Everyone is searching for markets for their produce and crafts, so they can get cash to buy consumables and health services, and pay school fees.

One option for transferring money in these remote areas is via mobile phones.




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Recent research by Tim Grice found that people living in urban centres and rural towns in PNG are already using mobile money to send money to one another.

It is yet to take off in the South Fly but it could do soon, as people are already exchanging mobile phone credits used to top-up their phones.

Across the South Fly, villagers receive money from relatives living in urban centres like Port Moresby – or from Australian relatives in the Torres Strait – through the mail service Post PNG or the “bricks and mortar” Bank South Pacific (BSP) branch in Daru.

Households affected by the nearby Ok Tedi mine receive compensation payments into their bank accounts. The payments relate to extensive environmental damage to the area, especially the Fly River, when BHP Billiton operated the mine. But this could be done via phone payments too.

And then there are public servants or retired public servants, who burn up much of their government pay or pensions just to get to the bank and back. Mobile phone payments would improve life here too.

Paying government salaries and pensions by phone would be far easier

In the South Fly, officials get payments from the PNG government for community work projects. These officials keep careful records of the hours each villager works, but sometimes spend months in Daru, repeatedly asking the district administrator to release the funds. When the funds finally arrive, the elected official journeys home, surrounded by relatives as bodyguards, and hand delivers payments to each worker.

Much of the money goes on transport and accommodation in Daru. Again, this money could be sent via mobile phones.

PNG’s new Ireland province tested the idea of social payments for aged and disability pensions – with great success. The World Bank assessed the idea and said an electronic payment system was needed across the country.

In many South Fly villages, the shared mobile phone is found dangling from a tree or a window, in the one place where reception appears intermittently.

A lack of infrastructure maintenance and coastal corrosion have seen mobile phone coverage in the South Fly deteriorate. Work is underway to replace failing towers, ahead of moves to bring in 3G internet coverage.

A young girl in traditional dress uses a mobile phone as she waits for then Prime Minister Tony Abbott in Port Moresby in March 2014.
Alan Porritt/AAP

Maintaining mobile phone towers is cheaper than building roads

The cost of installing and maintaining mobile phone infrastructure is lower than building roads across river deltas and flood-prone savannah. And the higher the demand for transferring money via mobile phones, the more viable an upgrade to mobile coverage becomes.

International donors like China are increasingly funding infrastructure projects in PNG, though often with strings attached. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison just announced an infrastructure financing facility.

Two major mobile network operators, Digicel and B-Mobile, already provide mobile money services in partnership with BSP, Westpac, and ANZ.

Foreign aid could be sent via mobile phones, cutting out the middlemen

Foreign aid could be distributed this way, to a community-based organisation, for example. And cash flowing in means better-off citizens and more economic activity.

Another big potential benefit to all this could be tackling absenteeism among teachers and medical workers. They are often off work travelling long distances to towns to get their pay and do grocery shopping.

But there are risks. Giving the cash directly to people and organisations – where previously it was funnelled through the central government – will fundamentally shift the politics between citizens, leaders, bureaucrats, and international actors, and not necessarily for the better. Some people who may be benefiting from current arrangements may oppose change to protect the privileges they enjoy.

PNG is a place of great complexity, with a development landscape littered with failed efforts. If such changes are made, there will be winners and losers – but surely it’s worth considering new approaches, given how little money is getting to these villages now.The Conversation

Mark Moran, Chair of Development Effectiveness, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Aftershocks hit Papua New Guinea as it recovers from a remote major earthquake


Sabin Zahirovic, University of Sydney; Gilles Brocard, University of Sydney; John Connell, University of Sydney, and Romain Beucher, University of Melbourne

Another powerful aftershock hit Papua New Guinea this weekend as the recovery effort continues following February’s deadly magnitude 7.5 earthquake, with many thousands of people dependent on humanitarian aid.

Aid organisations such as CARE Australia and UNICEF are still seeking donations. The Australian government has sent medical staff and other support to help.

Some have criticised the PNG government’s efforts as “too slow”.




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But the earthquake highlights the challenge for emerging economies like PNG in deploying relief efforts into remote areas to deal with natural disasters.

And the same geological features that make PNG a rich source of mineral deposits are also part of its earthquake problem.

The earthquake hits

The February earthquake struck the western Highlands provinces of the Pacific island nation, and a series of aftershocks, including several of magnitude 6 or more, continued to shake the region during the following weeks.

Although parts of PNG are particularly earthquake-prone (especially in the north and the islands, along the plate boundary), February’s earthquake was quite exceptional.

It occurred in a usually less active part of the plate boundary and was remarkably powerful when compared with the short (modern) instrumental earthquake record. The strength and frequency of the aftershocks has posed an additional threat to local populations and key economic infrastructure.

On average 10-20 major earthquakes (magnitudes 7 and greater) occur on Earth every year. Most of them occur far from densely populated regions, such that only a few draw media attention.

The mountainous regions of New Guinea, known as the fold and thrust belt, have been geologically active for millions of years. But the long recurrence interval of major earthquakes (every few centuries) combined with the short period of the instrument records (just a few decades) gives us the false impression that seismicity is uncommon in this region.

The February earthquake occurred due to the activation of a major fault system in the forested foothills, between the Papuan highlands to the north and the Fly River lowlands to the south.

Australia collides

The Papuan highlands have risen due to the collision between the Australian and Caroline/Pacific tectonic plates over the past five million years.

An animation of Australia’s tectonic journey as it broke away from Gondwana more than 100 million years ago. (Credit: Sabin Zahirovic)

Despite this collision, the Australian plate continues to move at about 7 cm a year to the northeast, in geological terms a quite remarkable speed, leading to a build-up of strain in the continental crust.

Much of this strain is released at the plate boundary along northern New Guinea, usually with more frequent but less powerful swarms of earthquakes. It is this motion, driven by the churning interior of our planet, that leads to major adjustments to the GPS datum and reference coordinates for the entire Australian continent.

But few people are aware that this very motion of the Australian continent is what causes the seismic and volcanic activity in New Guinea and parts of Southeast Asia.

As Australia moves northward, the entire New Guinea margin acts as a bulldozer, collecting Pacific islands, seamounts and other topographic features. New Guinea represents the leading edge of the advancing Australian continent, which causes continental crust to fold and crumple over a broad region.

This is a well-known process in plate tectonics, where the oceanic plates are known to behave quite rigidly, whereas the continental regions tend to deform over broader diffuse boundaries that resemble plasticine over geological timeframes.

When continents are squeezed during tectonic collisions, the crust crumples and folds over geological timescales. (Credit: Romain Beucher)

But the continental deformation process results in poorly defined (often due to the thick tropical vegetation cover) and intermittently active fault systems in the continent.

Over the duration of mountain building in the past five million years, the areas of highest deformation have shifted across the range. Today most of the deformation in PNG takes place north of the mountainous area, where it generates a lot of earthquakes.

Underground riches at risk

Some substantial crumpling of the continental crust still occurs across the southern foothills. The folding and thrusting has generated geologically young folds, within which a large part of PNG’s gas and oil wealth has accumulated.

The intense tectonic activity has also led to the enrichment of mineral resources, including mines sourcing gold, copper, silver, nickel, cobalt and a suite of other ore types.

Distribution of the aftershocks magnitude 4+ since the main quake (as of April 9, 2018). The size and colour (small to large, yellow to red) indicate aftershock magnitude and D+ the number of days after main shock. The white shaded ellipse represents the area of greatest slip during the main shock. Green diamonds represent the main gas fields.
USGS/Gilles Brocard, Author provided

It is this tectonic activity that determines the delicate interplay of economic benefits from raw materials, and the often-devastating and usually-unpredictable effects of natural disasters on society.

Although the February earthquake occurred at the very heart of one of the largest and newest gas fields in the country, the industrial installations, at the highest international standards, have not suffered major damage from the tremors.

But the ongoing disaster triggered a temporary halt in gas extraction, as the facilities require inspections and repairs. Unfortunately, and unusually, the earthquakes have struck in some of the most remote parts of the country.

Coping with disaster

Hela province is one of the poorest in PNG and its people are unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with a disaster of this scale. As many as half a million people were reported to be affected by the earthquake. At least 145 people reported killed.




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The Highlands Highway, the one real road into the region, was badly damaged and this is the major source of food and medicines. Many feeder roads have gone.

Papua New Guineans are resilient but it is likely that more external assistance will be needed to ensure that a physical disaster does not become a greater human tragedy.

Even so the full extent of the disaster has still to be revealed, while aftershocks continue to trigger secondary hazards including major landslides that have isolated a large number of communities.

The ConversationNot only are local communities facing the immediate hazards of further earthquakes and landslides, they face a protracted and costly recovery ahead.

Sabin Zahirovic, Postdoctoral Research Associate, University of Sydney; Gilles Brocard, Post doctoral associate, University of Sydney; John Connell, Professor of Human Geography, University of Sydney, and Romain Beucher, Postdoctoral Research Associate in Computational Geodynamics, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Three charts on: what’s going on at Manus Island



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There are few options left for the asylum seekers remaining on Manus Island.
Marcella Cheng/The Conversation, CC BY-NC-ND

Mary Anne Kenny, Murdoch University

Tensions at the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre remain high after the centre was officially closed on October 31 this year and handed back to the Papua New Guinea government.

Reports are that there are still around 420 people in the now-defunct regional processing centre who are refusing to move to recently built transit centres in Lorengau. However, these numbers shift on a daily basis as men move in and out of the centre.


CC BY-ND

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently said that:

The abrupt ending of services and the closure of the regional processing centre needs to involve the people who have been in this regional processing centre for years in a very vulnerable state… It is really high time to bring an end to this unconscionable human suffering.

How did we get here?

The offshore processing of asylum seekers who came to Australia by boat recommenced in 2012. At that time, single adult men were sent to Nauru and families with children and some adult men were sent to Manus Island in PNG.

However, since July 2013 only adult men were transferred to Manus and all the asylum seekers there today are male. (And families with children, single women, couples and some single men are on Nauru).

Since July 2013 a total of 1,523 people have been transferred to Manus from Australia.

When the Manus processing centre closed on October 31, there were 690 people in the facility.


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The number of asylum seekers on Manus Island has slowly reduced over the years as people have either accepted packages to return to their country of origin, been deported from PNG, been resettled in the US or temporarily settled in PNG. Six others have died.

The population has reduced over time.

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Why was the Manus Regional Processing Centre closed?

On April 27 last year, the PNG Supreme Court ruled that the detention of the asylum seekers on Manus Island was unconstitutional.

After the decision was made the PNG government said that those at the centre were free to come and go from the processing centre.

It was not until April 2017 that the Australian government and the PNG government announced publicly that the processing centre would close on October 31.

All of the service providers (including health providers) and Australian government officials left the centre on October 31 this year and the centre was supposed to be reoccupied by the PNG Defence Force from November 1.

What are the options for those left on Manus?

According to the Australian government, those who have been found by PNG authorities to be refugees have the following options:

  • resettle in PNG;

  • wait in PNG for possible resettlement in the US;

  • transfer to Nauru to wait for possible resettlement in the US; or

  • return to the country from which they had fled persecution.

Resettlement of refugees in PNG has been slow and problematic with few people opting to leave the processing centre to live elsewhere in PNG.

The UNHCR has raised concern about just how “voluntarily” refugees can return to the country from which they fled.

Since the US resettlement deal was announced about a year ago, 516 refugees from Manus have been referred to the US for resettlement.

Reviews of their cases and interviews are underway. Only 25 have been resettled so far. However, it is up to the US as to how many they will take and it is unclear when the next refugees will be transferred to the US.

Currently, it is clear the majority want to wait to see if they will be offered resettlement in the US. Refugees remaining in the processing centre have been offered alternative accommodation at East Lorengau Refugee Transit Centre (for up to 400 people) and West Lorengau House (for up to 300 people). Whether these facilities can in fact house this many men is as yet unclear.

The UNHCR is urging against the forced movement of refugees and asylum seekers to these centres from the processing centre.


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The men who have been found by PNG authorities not to be refugees have been offered supported accommodation in Lorengau (Hillside House).

The ConversationHowever the PNG government expects them to eventually make arrangements to return home voluntarily or they will be deported.

Mary Anne Kenny, Associate Professor, School of Law, Murdoch University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

UN slams Australia’s human rights record



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The UN committee urged Australia to end offshore processing and bring the men on Manus to Australia or another safe country.
AAP

Anna Cody, UNSW and Maria Nawaz, UNSW

Last night, the United Nations Human Rights Committee released its recommendations from its review of Australia’s compliance with a key human rights treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The committee harshly criticised Australia for failures in key areas. These included the treatment of refugees, Indigenous rights and inadequate protection of human rights, including the lack of a national human rights act.

What is the UN Human Rights Committee?

This is the treaty body for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The committee is made up of 18 independent human rights experts. Its key functions are to:

  • monitor and review state parties’ compliance with the treaty; and

  • decide complaints made by individuals against state parties.

What did the committee say about Australia’s human rights record?

The committee noted areas in which Australia’s record had improved. These included the establishment of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights and the introduction of protections against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.


Read more: With a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, Australia must fix its record on Indigenous rights


The committee also commended Australia for its commitment to ratifying the Optional Protocol on the Convention against Torture.

However, concerns far outweighed improvements in human rights.

The rights of refugees

The committee widely criticised Australia’s refugee policy for breaching Australia’s human rights obligations under the convention.

It raised concerns about refoulement (the forcible return of refugees to their home countries), mandatory detention, Operation Sovereign Borders and offshore detention. This includes the recent closure of the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre.

The committee urged Australia to end offshore processing and bring the men on Manus to Australia or another safe country. It emphasised the need for detention to be used to assess individual risk, not as a general deterrent. It also found that Australia has “effective control” over the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

The rights of Indigenous people

The committee expressed concern about disproportionately high (27%) Indigenous incarceration rates. It recommended that measures such as mandatory sentencing and imprisonment for not paying fines be repealed.

The committee further recommended that Australia provide adequate funding to the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, and consider constitutional change to reflect the special status and fully protect the equal rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

As it has done before, the committee urged Australia to establish a national reparations scheme for members of the Stolen Generation.

The rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people

The committee roundly criticised unnecessary medical interventions on intersex people, particularly intersex infants and children. It recommended that the requirement for Family Court authorisation for second-stage hormone treatment for young people diagnosed with gender dysphoria be removed.

Barriers to gender and sex recognition on documents were also criticised.

The committee took a strong stance on the same-sex marriage postal survey. It stated that:

resort[ing] to public opinion polls to facilitate upholding rights under the Covenant in general, and equality and non-discrimination of minority groups in particular, is not an acceptable decision-making method.

The committee recommended that the Marriage Act be amended, regardless of the outcome of the postal survey.

The rights of women

The committee noted the endemic nature of violence against women, and the disproportionate impact this has on Indigenous women and women with a disability. It recommended that Australia increase its efforts to prevent all forms of violence against women.


Read more: New Home Affairs department should prompt review of Australia’s human rights performance


The committee again raised concerns about the involuntary sterilisation of women and girls with intellectual and cognitive disability, and recommended that Australia abolish this practice.

The human rights framework

As in previous reviews, the committee recommended that Australia introduce a comprehensive national human rights act to give effect to the human rights protections in the covenant.

It also recommended that federal anti-discrimination laws be strengthened to ensure effective protection against all forms of discrimination. It specifically noted the lack of federal protection against discrimination on the basis of religion.

The committee criticised previous attacks by politicians on the Australian Human Rights Commission and recommended that Australia respect the independence of that body.

Where to from here?

The release of these recommendations comes at a crucial time for Australia, which last month won a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.

The council is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights, and for addressing human rights violations around the world.

Council members must demonstrate their willingness to improve their domestic human rights situation. To claim legitimacy in human rights on the world stage, Australia needs to demonstrate a genuine commitment to human rights at home.

Under the committee’s follow-up procedure, Australia must explain how it will implement selected recommendations within 12 months. The committee’s selected recommendations focus on Australia’s treatment of refugees.

Australia was criticised at the review for a history of “chronic non-compliance” with committee recommendations. The challenge for Australia will be to engage positively with the recommendations and urgently implement substantive change to promote and protect human rights.

The ConversationA good starting point would be a national human rights act, to fully incorporate Australia’s international human rights obligations into law. Furthermore, Australia should reconsider its response to the Referendum Council’s recommendation of an Indigenous voice to parliament.

Anna Cody, Associate Professor and Director, Kingsford Legal Centre, UNSW and Maria Nawaz, Law Reform Solicitor/Clinical Legal Supervisor, Kingsford Legal Centre, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Manus detention centre closure sparks safety fears for refugees



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AAP

Amy Maguire, University of Newcastle and Georgia Monaghan, University of Newcastle

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 proposal to relocate detainees to Nauru does nothing to resolve their precarious situations. It is unsurprising that this option has not been embraced by detainees.

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.

In 2014, Lorengau locals attacked the Manus centre, killing one refugee and injuring 77. In recent months, local people have warned detainees:

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.

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Closure sparks human rights crisis

Extra PNG police are stationed on Manus in anticipation of the closure.

The UNHCR has warned of a “humanitarian emergency”. Human Rights Watch has urged Australia to send the Australian Federal Police to Manus in order to protect refugees and mitigate conflict.

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.

The ConversationAustralia 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.

Amy Maguire, Senior Lecturer in International Law and Human Rights, University of Newcastle and Georgia Monaghan, Research Assistant, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

First refugees to leave for the United States


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

About 50 refugees from Nauru and Manus Island will leave in the next week to ten days for resettlement in the US.

This is the first batch under the deal the Turnbull government struck with the Obama administration, which US President Donald Trump has reluctantly agreed to honour – although the number that will be taken is unclear.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the processing of other people was continuing, and further decisions by US authorities were “expected in due course”.

The government is providing minimal detail of those who have so far passed the Americans’ “extreme vetting” and been approved to go, saying it is up to the US to do that.

It has been reported that the Manus group includes refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. They were told to be ready to leave on Sunday for Port Moresby.

Malcolm Turnbull said this batch of departures came half and half from Nauru and Manus.

Turnbull said: “there are many that are being vetted, but it is entirely up to the United States as to how many are taken”.

The refugee deal was the subject of the now-infamous telephone conversation between Trump and Turnbull early in the year, in which Trump railed against the arrangement but Turnbull prevailed on him to take people, although the number was left vague.

Turnbull said Trump had reservations about the deal “to say the least. But nonetheless, he is honouring that commitment made by his predecessor.”

“It’s a sign of the strong relationship between the United States and Australia, and I want to thank the United States and President Trump for honouring that commitment,” he said on Wednesday.

The ConversationThe initial deal was for the US to take up to 1,250 refugees. There are 868 people in Papua New Guinea of whom 679 have been found to be refugees; Nauru has 1,124 people, with 994 of them having been found to be refugees.

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Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

For $70m, government gets off lightly, but settlement still highlights responsibility for Manus



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$70 million is tiny sum in the scheme of the federal government’s expenditure to manage asylum seekers who arrive by sea.
AAP/Eoin Blackwell

Alex Reilly, University of Adelaide

The federal government on Wednesday reached a settlement with 1,905 detainees on Manus Island for A$70 million. The settlement was agreed immediately before a trial was due to begin in Victoria’s Supreme Court. The case alleged the Commonwealth and its detention centre contractors, G4S and Transfield, had breached a duty of care owed to the plaintiffs in relation to their detention, and falsely imprisoned them between November 2012 and May 2016.

The decision to reach a settlement can be read in several ways.

It would first seem to be a stunning admission by the Commonwealth that it did owe a duty of care to the detainees, and that it breached this duty through its detention practices.

Alternatively, it may be read as a strategic decision by the Commonwealth to reduce the political damage it believed would be caused through a protracted trial (predicted to be six months). This damage was likely to be exacerbated by the court’s decision to allow proceedings to be streamed live.

A small price to pay?

Compared to the federal government’s expenditure to manage unauthorised maritime arrivals – $1.078 billion in the 2015-16 financial year, and more than $800 million in 2016-17 – $70 million is a tiny sum.

And $70 million – an average of about $36,000 per detainee – might seem a small price for the Commonwealth to pay for the litany of allegations of mistreatment detailed against it in the statement of claim. These included:

  • failure to provide adequate toilet facilities;

  • contaminated meals;

  • inadequate and delayed medical treatment; and

  • illegal detention.

This mistreatment was connected to the death of three detainees, and the serious injury of many more.

The class action brought the issues to a conclusion in a more timely fashion than individual actions could have done. But given the extent of the harm to each individual, the settlement amount for each person is likely to be significantly lower than they might have received in an individual claim.

The action was only peripherally about the money, though. The case provided a platform to lay bare the ugly reality of conditions in detention and the role of the Commonwealth and its contractors in producing and sustaining those conditions over many years.

A new way to hold government to account

In this case, private litigation was able to play a significant role in holding the government to account in an environment in which traditional accountability mechanisms fail to cut through. There are several reasons for this.

First, the case was able to produce new information about conditions on Manus Island. Once the class action was on foot, it provided a platform for expert witnesses and detainees to testify to conditions in detention free from the constraints of other types of investigation. It provided access to sensitive documents, such as the detail of government contracts with detention centre operators.

In contrast, the Australian Human Rights Commission only investigates detention abuses on Australian territory. And it is difficult for NGOs to investigate conditions in the detention centres. They need permission from governments to visit centres, and findings in their reports are easily denied by governments.

As a result, the best information on conditions in detention is through reports of those working in the centres, or through leaked documents.

As Slater and Gordon lawyer Andrew Baker said following the settlement, the case provided a strong reminder of the role the legal system can play in:

… holding governments and corporations accountable.

The case may herald the beginning of a period in which the Commonwealth will be forced to account for its offshore detention policy through protracted legal action.

What remains unclear is how many Manus Island detainees opted out of the action, and are thus free to bring individual claims. In light of the government’s decision to settle the claim, detainees outside the class action – and detainees on Nauru – may look to bring individual actions for negligence and false imprisonment against the Commonwealth.

If the treatment of these people was particularly bad, and they manage to reap a significant compensation settlement, this may open alternative pathways to settle in Australia. They might, for example, be able to apply for an investor visa, which requires a $1.5 million investment in a state or territory upon nomination.

There are no doubt many obstacles to such an application. This includes the ability to meet the health requirements for the visa – which might be compromised due to the applicants’ treatment in detention – or understanding Australian values, which may well seem very confusing to those subjected to offshore detention.

The ConversationHowever, that such an application could even be contemplated highlights the perversity of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. It brings into shocking relief the distinction drawn between the same person as an asylum seeker and as a migrant with the means to invest in Australia’s economy.

Alex Reilly, Deputy Dean and Director of the Public Law and Policy Research Unit, Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.