Human rights organisations are dismayed at the federal government finally cutting all ties with refugees from its former detention centre on Manus Island, with more than 100 men who tried to reach Australia left behind in limbo in Papua New Guinea.
Eight years on from the ‘PNG solution’, the infamous offshore detention program, which horrified humanitarian groups and saw the deaths of at least seven asylum seekers or refugees, has come to an official end.
Behrouz Boochani, the Kurdish Iranian journalist and activist formerly imprisoned on Manus Island for six years, said it should be remembered as Australia’s “national shame”.
“It is a failure. It means Australia has not been able to solve this problem they created,” he said of the federal government cancelling the Regional Resettlement Arrangement with PNG.
“The Australian government should be accountable for this failure, they should answer how they have not been able to transfer the refugees.”
Australia ‘closes down’ PNG solution
Federal Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews announced this week that Australia’s resettlement deal with PNG would not be renewed. Australia’s detention centre on Manus Island was closed in 2019, but the government has still extended medical, financial and social support to former detainees in PNG.
“It it is time for us to close down our support into PNG, and for PNG to be taking over managing those operations,” Ms Andrews said this week.
Almost all of the thousands of men detained on Manus Island have since left the country – some transferred to Australia, others to third countries like the United States or Canada, or returning to their home countries. But up to 140 still remain in PNG.
Some decided to settle permanently in the country. Many others have been rejected for transfer to Australia or are still awaiting the outcome of applications to third countries.
Ms Andrews said PNG would take responsibility for the remaining men, including medical and social support. But Mr Boochani, who resettled in New Zealand in 2019, was angry about Australia cutting ties.
“They are passing this problem to PNG. The refugees didn’t come to PNG, they tried to come to Australia, and Australia is responsible,” he told The New Daily.
“Australia cannot get away with this. They’ve tortured people for years, and now they say they’re not responsible anymore? It’s unacceptable.”
Mr Boochani said “no-one” among the refugees in PNG is happy about the arrangement, and urged more resettlement options to be offered.
“You cannot establish a life in that country, PNG isn’t capable of supporting the refugees,” he said.
Pleas for resettlement deals
Amnesty International called this week’s move “a step in the right direction”, but begged the federal government to resettle the remaining men in third countries. Amnesty has campaigned for Australia to accept a standing offer from New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to accept 150 refugees per year from the offshore detention centres on Manus and Nauru.
“Now is the time to seal the deal. This suffering needs to finally come to an end,” said Amnesty’s Dr Graham Thom.
David Burke, legal director with the Human Rights Law Centre, blasted the federal government for not doing more.
“This is the government trying to wash its hands of more than 100 people who remain in PNG,” he told TND.
“This isn’t a moment of hope. It isn’t a plan to resettle them or support them … it’s just the government trying to extricate itself from the problem it created, and refusing to respond appropriately.”
Ms Andrews said people on Manus had the option of transferring to the other Australian offshore detention facility on Nauru, or applying for “about 250 places” left in Australia’s resettlement deal with the United States.
But Ian Rintoul, of the Refugee Action Coalition, said the men had already waited years for a spot in that resettlement. He said it was unclear exactly what support the remaining refugees would receive from PNG’s government.
“Is PNG offering to indefinitely support them? Continue providing medical care? That’s the reason we’ve got so many people in Australia for medical reasons,” he told TND.
“Some have got families, the details don’t really spell out what the future is like. It’s bleak. Even with the increased allowance PNG is offering them, it’s not enough to live on. There’s questions about education, family reunification. One of the guys told me ‘we’ve been hostages, we’re still hostages’.”
“Too many things are still unknown.”
Manus a ‘dark chapter’
Humanitarian groups generally welcomed the ending of Australia’s offshore detention program in PNG, but said it would be a stain on Australia’s history.
At least seven people died, including several by suicide; countless were gravely hurt through illness, injury or self-harm; and the original centre itself was the scene of ugly and violent demonstrations in 2017, when detainees were forcibly removed.
“What it’s known for is the murder of Reza Barati, the deaths of other people taken there, the stories of torture,” Mr Rintoul said. He thought Australians should look back on Manus Island with “complete horror”.
“It’s horrendous. People have died, been scarred for life, lost physical and mental health. It’s been a completely failed venture.”
Mr Burke shared similar thoughts.
“This is an incredibly dark chapter in our history that we’ll look back on with shame,” he said.
“People have died, been robbed of years of their lives. Children have been driven to self-harm. It’s unimaginable cruelty inflicted on people.”
Paul Power, CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia, said Australia should do all it could to ensure refugees left in PNG were resettled in the US, Canada or New Zealand. He said Manus was an “international disgrace” to Australia.
“No one then would have been pessimistic enough to imagine that refugees sent to detention on Manus Island would still be stuck in limbo more than eight years later,” he said.
‘A national shame’
Mr Boochani was detained on Manus from 2013 to 2019. He was the most prominent voice among a group of refugees drawing attention to squalid conditions inside the detention centre, including unbearable heat, physical and mental abuse, lack of medical care, and malnutrition.
Mr Boochani, though mainstream and social media channels, exposed alarming levels of self-harm and psychological distress in the centre, including refugees committing suicide or setting themselves on fire.
He has since been accepted for resettlement in New Zealand, where he is pursuing academic, writing and creative endeavours. Following his acclaimed novel No Friend But The Mountains, he is working on a stage play and co-curating a journal. He said it was difficult for him to think about his time in detention, but said Australians shouldn’t forget Manus Island, calling it a “national shame”.
“People think this policy only damages refugees, but it damages Australia too in many ways. They spent billions of dollars, how can we say this policy doesn’t impact Australia?” he said.
“Of course it’s difficult that people I have known for years are still there. It makes me really tired when I talk about Manus and Nauru, but we should talk about it.”