(Sydney) – More than 850 asylum seekers and 87 refugees are detained indefinitely in poor conditions on Manus Island two years after Australia announced it would process and resettle “boat people” in Papua New Guinea (PNG), Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Law Centre said today.

Since January 2015, PNG and Australian authorities have transferred 40 men found to be refugees to a transit center, but they are still prevented from leaving Manus Island and are denied opportunities to work and study.

Lorengau transit center, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, which currently houses 40 refugees.

“After two years, Australia’s experiment in offshore detention has been a disaster,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director. “Even the few people provided refugee status have been denied freedom of movement and the right to work. All should be allowed to move on with their lives in dignity and security.”

Australia should stop sending asylum seekers to PNG, and both governments should treat asylum seekers in accordance with international standards and implement a refugee resettlement policy, the two organizations said.

The PNG and Australian governments detain the asylum seekers – all adult men – in overcrowded conditions at a facility on Manus Island’s Lombrum naval base. Human rights organizations and media have no regular access to the facilities.

Two asylum seekers sent to Manus have died – one after allegedly being beaten to death by contract staff at the detention center and another from septicemia after cutting his foot.

“Two years after the Regional Resettlement Arrangement was announced, the tragic reality is that more asylum seekers sent to Manus have died than have been resettled,” said Daniel Webb, director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre. “People found to be refugees deserve a real solution – not a transfer to a facility down the road where they remain in limbo.”

In June and July 2015, PNG immigration allowed Human Rights Watch and Human Rights Law Centre to visit the transit center at Lorengau on Manus Island, but not the Lombrum detention facility.

After two years, Australia’s experiment in offshore detention has been a disaster. Even the few people provided refugee status have been denied freedom of movement and the right to work. All should be allowed to move on with their lives in dignity and security.

Elaine Pearson

Australia director

On July 19, 2013, Australia and PNG signed a Regional Resettlement Arrangement which provides that asylum seekers arriving in Australia irregularly by boat will be sent to Manus Island for processing and resettlement in other parts of PNG. A Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries states that those transferred will be treated “with dignity and respect and in accordance with relevant human rights standards.” The Australian government has been spending approximately A$600 million (US$450 million) per year in connection with the agreement.

Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Law Centre uncovered serious human rights concerns including:

  • Pressure to return to home countries and lengthy delays in refugee processing;
  • Mental health problems linked to prolonged and indefinite detention;
  • Arbitrary detention of asylum seekers and refugees in the police lock-up and prison;
  • Restrictions on refugees’ freedom of movement and work rights;
  • Assault of a refugee by alleged authorities in Lorengau town; and
  • Mistreatment of gay asylum seekers by other detainees.

“Some rooms [at Lombrum] were filled up from top to bottom,” said a refugee detained there for 20 months. “People were going crazy. I was put in a separate compound from my community. No one in my compound even spoke my language. I was so lonely and spent a lot of time crying.”

Abuses of asylum seekers, especially members of vulnerable groups such as gay men, have caused some to return home where they risk persecution rather than face insecurity and uncertainty in PNG.

Although refugees living in the transit center can move around the island, they cannot leave Manus. Since 2013, PNG immigration officials have only issued eight proper PNG identity documents to refugees in the transit center. The PNG certificate of identity states they are permitted to work in PNG, but PNG immigration has prevented one refugee from leaving Manus Island to pursue employment opportunities in Port Moresby, the capital. Several refugees have sought paid or volunteer opportunities on Manus Island, but PNG immigration denied their requests.

PNG immigration officials allegedly beat one refugee when he was outside the transit center after dark. Those charged with the assault, including the camp manager, continue to work at the center.

For many of the refugees on Manus Island who have experienced considerable trauma at home and over the course of their detention, PNG will not offer a viable long-term option for settlement and integration. While ensuring freedom of movement and work rights in PNG will improve their immediate circumstances, realistic settlement options other than PNG should be identified to allow these men to finally move on with their lives.

Australia should cease all further transfers to Manus Island. It should press PNG authorities to immediately adopt and implement a comprehensive local integration policy for refugees and to provide all recognized refugees in PNG with ordinary residency, employment authorization, and other common identity documents; freedom of movement; and work rights. In the absence of any immediate resettlement policy, the Australian government should find alternative resettlement arrangements for refugees in other countries, including, principally, Australia.

Australia should also allow access for visitors and independent human rights monitors to the Australia-funded detention center at Lombrum naval base and work with the PNG government to ensure that media and human rights organizations are allowed access to its facilities. The PNG government should immediately amend its laws to decriminalize homosexual relations.

Treatment of Asylum Seekers and Refugees on Manus Island
In June and July 2015, Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Law Centre interviewed ten refugees and three asylum seekers on Manus Island and met with United Nations agencies and PNG immigration officials, as well as local service providers, police, and hospital staff. This supplemented nine interviews with asylum seekers and refugees that Human Rights Watch conducted by telephone since February. Some refugees and asylum seekers asked not to be identified by name for fear of retribution. PNG officials allowed the organizations to visit the Lorengau transit center and interview refugees, but denied them access to the Lombrum detention center where the vast majority of men are held.

PNG “resettlement” policy
PNG ratified the Refugee Convention in 1986. However, it has never adopted a formal policy for the resettlement of refugees abroad or their integration within PNG. Two proposed “resettlement” policies introduced since late 2013, which would have provided for integration within PNG but not resettlement outside the country, have not been approved by the government.

In October 2014, the government announced a national consultation and refugee awareness campaign, culminating in a third draft policy. The policy is not yet publicly available but PNG officials said it focuses on the need for refugees to be economically independent and not reliant on government support. The draft policy has yet to be submitted to the cabinet.

Refugees and asylum seekers, service providers, local police, and even PNG immigration officials all identified the continuing delay in the development of a policy to integrate refugees as exacerbating the psychological toll on many refugees and asylum seekers.

The lack of government action has also added to the delays of processing of refugee claims. With refugees unable to leave the transit center, PNG has responded with a de facto “turn off the tap” policy, which prevents new refugees from moving to the center, officials said.

Refugee status determination process
Refugees on Manus Island said that they had experienced lengthy delays in the refugee status determination process, with applications taking a year or longer to process. PNG government officials told Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Law Centre that many men in detention already have been determined to be refugees but were still waiting to be formally granted refugee status.

Refugees told Human Rights Watch that they had been interviewed initially by Australian officials who said they were working for the PNG immigration system. Interpreters were provided, and questioning was professional, not hostile, they said. PNG immigration officials were not present. But after initial positive status determinations, most refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they waited weeks or months for the second status determination – a letter from the PNG immigration minister. The letters provided to the refugees stated that reasons for the positive determination were attached, but refugees interviewed said there was no attachment.

As of June 30, 2015, PNG immigration completed 635 first instance assessments for refugee status. Of these, 368 (58 percent) were positive and 267 (42 percent) were negative. So far, 129 refugees have been given a final positive determination. Asylum seekers can seek merit reviews of first instance refusals. However, it remains unclear whether they will have access to legal advice and judicial review.

Some asylum seekers have refused to participate in the status determination process saying they do not feel safe in PNG due to at least one past violent incident where asylum seekers were attacked by locals. Others have refused to participate because they say they do not see any future for themselves in PNG.

One refugee said that PNG immigration officials had manipulated him into posing for a photo to use in a national public relations campaign about refugees. He was flown to Port Moresby to meet a government official who he understood needed to sign off on his application for refugee status and release. PNG immigration accommodated him in a hotel, treated him to pizza, and took him shopping for clothes. “After 20 months in detention, everything was so exciting,” he said. “Seeing people, cars, buildings, shops. I thought God directly had decided to help me. I was going to meet the minister and he was going to give me refugee status.”

He said he was then asked to sign a form and pose for a photo holding a placard saying “Thank you for helping us,” which he did. He said immigration officials then told him the minister was unavailable and returned him to Manus. He was shocked and distressed when a month later he was confronted back at the transit center by other refugees holding a PNG newspaper featuring his image. The other refugees expressed anger that the man had been a part of a publicity campaign that they believed grossly misrepresented their treatment. The refugee, who had been staying at the transit center, spent the next four days hiding with a local family in a nearby fishing village, fearful of both PNG officials and some of the refugees. He is now back at the transit center.

Pressure to return
For asylum seekers, fears about personal safety, harsh detention conditions, lengthy delays in refugee processing, the absence of a clear pathway to resettlement or integration, and large financial incentives from the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection create significant pressures to return to their country of origin. Those interviewed said that whenever they raised concerns about mistreatment or delays in processing, PNG and Australian immigration officials and staff say they are free to go home. Two asylum seekers said that PNG immigration officials told them that if they do not receive refugee status they will have to return home.

The February 2014 violence at Lombrum detention center – in which one asylum seeker was killed and at least 51 injured – has made many asylum seekers fearful about living in PNG. Much of the violence was allegedly committed by local residents, center staff, and police officers responding to protests by asylum seekers.

Such a return-oriented environment risks pressing refugees to go back to a place where they may face real risks of persecution.

Mental health impact of detention
Asylum seekers and refugees report that conditions inside the detention center are overcrowded and that the protracted and indefinite nature of detention is causing significant mental health issues including depression and anxiety. Service providers acknowledged that lengthy periods of time in detention is detrimental to mental health and makes the eventual transition of refugees into PNG society even more difficult. Some refugees transferred to the transit center rarely leave their rooms, apparently still traumatized by their experience in detention.

“In detention you become domesticated. Like an animal inside a cage – you think they are fine, they look fine, they seem healthy, but they could not survive in nature. That is like us now,” said one refugee. Speaking about the mental state of others, he added, “Mentally, they are not fine. The mind doesn’t work very well. They read, but they can only read a page and they forget. They lose concentration. They won’t leave their rooms. They have lost the ability to live.”

“In Burma the government shoots us,” said a member of the persecuted Rohingya minority. “But here they kill us mentally.”

According to both the commander of the Manus provincial police and other officers, PNG immigration officials also recently took a refugee who had attempted to take his own life to the local police station and asked that he be arrested and charged with attempting suicide, a crime carrying a penalty of up to one year of imprisonment in PNG. The provincial police commander said that he refused.

Detention in Manus prison and police cells
In January, police detained a large group of asylum seekers for several weeks in crowded cells in the local prison and police lock-up following a hunger strike in Lombrum detention center. Both the jail and police cells have been designated as “relocation centers” under PNG immigration law, and as such asylum seekers can be held there by immigration authorities without charge and access to the courts or to lawyers. Detaining asylum seekers for any amount of time in criminal justice institutions is inappropriate – the purpose of administrative detention must be limited to what is specifically necessary for their processing, not punishment.

Many of the asylum seekers involved said the prison experience was traumatizing for them. One refugee said:

I was held in a cell with 40 or 60 other asylum seekers for 21 days. Some were having nightmares and screaming in the middle of the night. We had to sleep on the floor – there were no mattresses and no pillows. I asked to speak with a lawyer or to be charged and taken to court. But I was refused a lawyer and was never charged with anything. One man swallowed razor blades. Another man tried to hang himself out the back during the head count.

Another refugee said, “My whole life I have never been to jail. I’ve never created any trouble. I told them to check my background – I am not a troublemaker. They just said ‘Shut up! Don't talk so much!’ My heart was broken.”

Lorengau Transit Center, Manus Island
Physical conditions in the compound of the transit center were good, with new facilities, one or two men to a room, and shared kitchens and bathrooms. Refugees confirmed that the transit facility is less crowded and cleaner than the detention center and that they have more freedom to move around and communicate with the outside world. Refugees are free to leave the facility and move around the local community. A previous 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew had been relaxed, provided that the refugees inform guards if they will be home late. Center staff members advise refugees against staying out after dark for their own safety.

Refugees are given food to cook plus an allowance of 100 kina (A$49 or US$37) per week, which can be increased up to a maximum of 150 kina (A$73 or US$54) for participation in activities: refugees are paid 3 kina (A$1.50 or US$1.10) per class or excursion. Some refugees said their allowance was adequate. Others, particularly those who can only speak with family members overseas via telephone, said the allowance was insufficient.

Restrictions on refugees’ freedom of movement and work rights
PNG immigration officials have told all refugees staying at the transit center they are not allowed to leave Manus Island. The prohibition on refugees moving within PNG violates their rights to freedom of movement under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (article 12(1)) and is inconsistent with freedom of movement protections in the Refugee Convention (articles 26 and 31(2)).

One refugee said, “My main problem is this is still like being in detention, just a big island detention. I’m still stuck on this island. I want to start my real life.” He added, “The process is not clear. They need to clearly tell us what are the steps to resettlement, how can we move on with our lives?”

In March 2015, one refugee on his own initiative arranged job interviews in Port Moresby and purchased a flight ticket. He wrote to the PNG chief migration officer in advance to confirm that he would leave Manus Island for the purpose of attending the arranged interviews. The afternoon before he was scheduled to fly out, he received a letter telling him that he could not leave Manus and could not yet work due to the absence of a resettlement policy.

Some of the refugees on Manus are qualified and entrepreneurial. They include a doctor, engineer, artist, and sportsman. Several have actively sought employment opportunities on Manus. One man – a barber – entered an agreement with a local hotel to operate a barber shop from its premises. However, PNG immigration officials told him he was not permitted to work. The refugee said in an interview, “Cutting hair is my skill. I just want to do my job. I don’t want to be a barber on Manus for the rest of my life but it would have at least helped me pass the time here.”

PNG immigration officials said that refugees cannot engage in paid employment on Manus because the governor of Manus agreed to host the regional processing center on the basis that asylum seekers would be detained and processed on the island but integrated elsewhere.

Two refugees with professional qualifications have tried to volunteer in the local hospital and school. PNG immigration officials have so far refused any volunteer opportunities for the refugees, saying they have not yet finalized consent forms to authorize voluntary work and prevent possible exploitation.

Assault on a refugee in Lorengau town
On June 1, PNG immigration officials allegedly beat a refugee who had remained in Lorengau town after curfew. The refugee was at the local hotel with a friend when staff told him authorities were at the gate. He told the Human Rights Law Centre, “I went outside. Three immigration men started beating me. They were shouting at me, ‘This is our country! We will kill you! We can kill you!’”

The PNG officials allegedly hit the man repeatedly in the face. They then made him run in front of their car back toward the transit center. “They told me to run back to the center. I started running but then they stopped me and started beating me again. I was punched about 10 to 15 times,” the refugee said.

Three of the five PNG immigration officials employed at the transit center at the time have been charged with assault of the refugee and are awaiting trial. All three continue to work at the transit center where the refugee resides, one as the camp manager. They have already come face-to-face in court twice before returning to the transit facility. 

“I am in court giving evidence against them in their country. I am very afraid,” the refugee said. “I was beaten in Iran. I was beaten in detention. Now I've been beaten in the community. I’m looking for safety but I haven’t found it.”

Treatment of gay asylum seekers
In Papua New Guinea, consensual same-sex relations are offenses under the criminal law. Two gay asylum seekers in detention and other asylum seekers told Human Rights Watch about the mistreatment of gay men in detention. All those interviewed, including those who are not gay, said that gay men had a particularly difficult time on Manus Island. Asylum seekers said gay men are either shunned or sexually abused or assaulted and used by the other men. The gay men said they had frequent nightmares, were extremely depressed, and isolated themselves, often not leaving their rooms.

Gay men were among those who have returned to their countries before finalizing their refugee status. Some have refused to participate in the refugee status determination process or to move to the transit center because they do not believe they can be integrated in PNG and are concerned for their safety. One gay man who had received a positive refugee status determination refused to leave detention and reportedly destroyed his positive determination document and opted to return home.

A gay asylum seeker said, “I have not come to stay in Manus, a country where it’s possible [for a gay man] to be jailed for 14 years. If I wanted to live like this I would have stayed in Iran and gone to prison, been released, and then sent to prison again.”

Another said, “Everyone leaves me. No one considers me a friend. Those few men who do are only with me because they want to take advantage of me sexually. They become my friends and after they use me they leave. And make fun of me. It’s very hard here.”

Interactions with local community
There are many instances of welcoming, generous interactions between the local community and refugees on Manus. For instance, the refugee who said he was duped into appearing in the PNG immigration public relations campaign stayed with a local family for four days after fellow refugees confronted him at the transit center. Other refugees attend the local market on a regular basis and are well known in Lorengau town.

However, many refugees remain acutely fearful of the broader PNG community. Part of that fear appears conditioned – a product of the incredibly closed and secluded place in which they spent so long detained, and reinforced by regular advice that it is not safe for them to leave the transit facility at night. “I don't feel safe outside the transit center,” said one refugee. “Staff at the center have told us that we can go outside but it is our responsibility and no one can protect us.”

The February 2014 unrest and violence also seems to have taken its toll on the refugees. “I was good with the local security. I was friendly with them. I knew all about their family. And then they attacked me and the others,” one refugee told us. “I left my country because I was looking for a safe place. But this is not a safe place.”