Yesterday, the governments of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Australia announced the closure of the Manus Island detention center. After more than three years of keeping more than 800 asylum seeker and refugee men in limbo, have the governments caved to domestic and international pressure to close the camps?
Sadly, the lack of substance behind the announcement makes it seem like a cheap political stunt to avoid taking responsibility for the detention center – especially as it precedes a PNG court hearing on the facility next week.
For years, Australia has sent asylum seekers to cramped and dirty offshore detention centers on PNG’s Manus Island and the Pacific island nation of Nauru.
Australia Immigration Minister Peter Dutton refused to give a timeline for the center’s closure and stuck to the government’s line that “no one” from the Manus center “will ever be settled in Australia.” Dutton said the government would “work with PNG to close Manus and support those people as they transition into PNG or return to their country.”
But neither option is tenable.
Several refugees tried to settle in PNG. One became homeless, and others faced violence, or were robbed or cheated. Nearly all returned to Manus Island. Papua New Guinea is a difficult place for foreigners to integrate or feel safe. No matter how many millions of dollars Australia pumps into PNG resettlement plans, it cannot buy these men safety.
Refugees who risk persecution in their home countries cannot legally be sent back. Ninety-eight percent of those who have been processed on Manus have been found to be refugees.
Instead, Australia has let refugees and asylum seekers remain on Manus Island with its inadequate medical care, where physical and sexual abuse have occurred, and where men withstood days of violence when local residents stormed the center. When I visited Manus Island last year, one man told me, “It’s like we are caged animals. We look fine, we seem fine, but mentally we are not fine.”
A recent investigation by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International on Nauru found refugees and asylum seekers suffering from severe abuse and neglect. Last week, the Guardian released files documenting alarming levels of self-harm as well as abuse there.
In April, the PNG Supreme Court ruled that the detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island was unconstitutional – PNG’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill promptly agreed to close the center. But neither Australia nor PNG have taken significant steps to shut it down. A further legal challenge is underway, seeking the release of the detainees in line with the Supreme Court ruling.
As pressure builds to end these inhumane policies, Australia needs to find a lasting solution for the 2000 people who languish on Manus and Nauru. Enough with the vague announcements. It’s overdue to move these people to Australia or a safe third country equipped to resettle refugees.