A “humanitarian emergency” is unfolding in Papua New Guinea (PNG) with about 600 refugees and asylum seekers continue to barricade themselves inside the Manus Island detention camp. The men remain at the centre without food, water or electricity following the camp’s closure on October 31, and have refused to be relocated to temporary shelters over fears of violence from the island’s residents.
Rupert Colville, spokesman for high commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, in a statement said the UN’s human rights committee had “serious concerns about the welfare, safety and wellbeing” of the men who remained at the centre, and said Australia and PNG had responsibilities as per the 1951 Refugee Convention to protect and provide for the men.
The PNG Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected an application to restore electricity, food and water supplies at the camp, saying that the services were available at the transit centres where the men are refusing to be moved.
What is the Manus Island detention camp?
The Manus Regional Processing Centre is one of many offshore immigration detention centres run by Australia. Although originally established in 2001, the centre was reopened for regular use in 2013 after Australia launched its “sovereign borders” law, putting the military in charge of the operation. Under the policy, which is intended to curb human smuggling, Australia does not resettle any refugees, asylum seekers or migrants who approach the country by boat.
Since 2013, Australia has paid Papua New Guinea to house migrants caught at sea at Manus Island while their status is processed and to resettle them in that country if they are found to be legitimate refugees, in what has commonly come to be known as the ‘PNG solution’. If claims were found to be invalid, asylum seekers would be either sent back to their countries, to a different country or remain in detention indefinitely. Only single men were held at the Manus Island camp, while single women and families are housed at the Nauru detention centre.
What were conditions in the camp like?
Rights groups have long claimed that conditions at the detention centres are subpar, with widespread allegations of rape and child abuse. The UN too has criticised conditions at the camps, saying detainees suffer “severe abuse and neglect”.
Critics have also said that holding asylum seekers indefinitely in what some described as ‘Australia’s Guantanamo’ has caused extensive psychological harm and exposed detainees to physical and sexual assault.
Detainees in the camp have previously come under attack from locals and security forces alike. Days before the closure of the camp, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report detailed incidents of assault by island locals. Locals were also involved in February 2014 protests, storming the centre with island police and attacking the detainees.
The PNG police has been involved in several instance of violence against the asylum seekers. According to the HRW report, “groups of local young men, often intoxicated and sometimes armed with sticks, rocks, knives, or screwdrivers, have frequently assaulted and robbed refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island” who have ventured out of the camp following a PNG Supreme Court ruling last year.
An Iranian asylum seeker quoted in the HRW described how in August 2016 he told Australian Border Force (ABF) staff about sexual harassment by a PNG guards at the main center, yet his complaint was ignored.
ABF said any complaint goes to the police. I refused because I didn’t feel safe, but that night they called the police. The police said it [the allegation of sexual harassment] is bullshit. The grabbed me by the hair… they started grabbing me, they put me in the car and started hitting me and said, “Go back to your country.”
And earlier this year, nine people were wounded after PNG soldiers, who were allegedly drunk, opened fire at refugees in the camp.
Why was it shut?
In April 2016, the PNG Supreme Court ruled that detention of asylum seekers was “unconstitutional and illegal” and said that confining refugees to the camp violated their rights and freedoms. Following the ruling, PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill asked Australia to immediately make “alternative arrangements” for detainees at the centre. The immediate Australian response was to deny any responsibility and distance itself from the ruling.
PNG and Australia eventually reached a deal to close the camp and relocate those held there and Australia has said it will fund the three new transit centres on Manus Island. Only those refugees whose claims were deemed valid would be resettled in PNG, with the others either repatriated to their home countries or sent to a third country.
Who are the men refusing to leave the camp?
Most of those who were detained and have refused to leave the Manus Island camp since its closure are asylum seekers from West and South Asia, including Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, who founded the Kurdish newspaper Werya and was forced to flee when its offices were raided by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He has been detained at Manus since 2013. About 600 men have refused to leave the camp fearing attacks from locals, despite water, food and electricity supplies being cut off, as well as having no access to medical facilities.
In a series of tweets, Boochani has described the situation inside the camp in the days after its closure.
Last night IHMS refused medical treatment to refugee with heart pain. A letter from IHMS shows even if they did see him, couldn't help him
— Behrouz Boochani (@BehrouzBoochani) November 5, 2017
Refugee on Manus with severe kidney stones, crying from pain. Govt obviously violating human rights. I'm witnessing a tragedy, a disaster.
— Behrouz Boochani (@BehrouzBoochani) November 5, 2017
Although some locals provided limited supplies of food over the weekend, the supply line has since been closed.
“The navy positioned personnel close to the beach to prevent any boats getting through. We have been surrounded by navy personnel determined to stop boats coming too close,” Boochani told Reuters.
Navy positioned personnel close to beach from today to prevent any boats getting to prison camp. They are preventing food.
— Behrouz Boochani (@BehrouzBoochani) November 6, 2017
Some men have even dug holes in the ground hoping to find water, or as a means to store rainwater.
On Saturday, a refugee collapsed after suffering some chest pain and had to wait over four hours for medical assistance.
The UN has widely criticised Australia and PNG for the continuing standoff with asylum seekers in the camp, telling the Malcolm Turnbull government to restore services immediately.
The Australian government, however, has rejected all claims of abandoning the men inside the camp and said they were free to go to any of the three transit centres in nearby Lorengau. However, regional UNHCR representative Nat Jit Lam inspected the alternative accommodation and said one of the centres was not ready for occupation and unsafe.
“I will not be bringing any refugee there to stay — not in that state,” Lam told ABC Radio of Australia, according to the New York Times.
Australia has repeatedly said it will not accept any of the refugees and they must be resettled in PNG or another country, or return home. Australia has said the relocation sites, according to Reuters, were meant as a stop-gap measure following the closure.
On Sunday, October 5, Australia rejected an offer by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to take 150 asylum seekers from the camp, saying it would prefer to see through an existing deal with the US.
“We want to pursue those [the US deal to resettle refugees], conclude those arrangements, and then in the wake of that obviously we can consider other ones,” Turnbull told Ardern during a media conference in Sydney.
The US agreed to resettle over 1000 refugees during the Obama administration, but doubts have clouded the deal since the election of Donald Trump, who described it as “dumb” and the “worst deal ever”.
Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 2, 2017
So far, about 54 refugees have been accepted by the US.
Nearly 300 of the men remaining at the camp are said to have written to Trump, Ardern and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking them for help as the situation continues to worsen inside the camp.
Meanwhile, Australian actor Russell Crowe, also took to Twitter to criticise his country’s refugee policy, calling it the “nation’s shame” and offered to provide housing and jobs for six of the men.