Refugees and asylum seekers on Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) Manus Island have suffered repeated violent attacks and robberies by locals, with inadequate hospital care on the island and no action by police.

Australia and Papua New Guinea (PNG) have failed to protect the well-being of hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers sent to Manus Island under Australia’s mandatory offshore processing policy, Human Rights Watch said today. About 770 men remain stuck in PNG, where many have suffered assaults and robberies and received inadequate health care, according to new interviews by Human Rights Watch.
The Australian and PNG governments’ proposal to close the regional processing center (the “main center”) on Manus Island by October 31, 2017, and transfer or settle those living there elsewhere in PNG will further endanger their safety and health. Australia should instead admit and integrate those found to be refugees, fairly process those with pending asylum claims, and reassess the claims of failed asylum seekers before forcibly returning them to their home countries, Human Rights Watch said.
“While the October 31 deadline looms, refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island have been getting stabbed, beaten, and robbed,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “The tragic irony is that moving these men from their squalid, guarded center and settling them elsewhere in PNG will actually put them at greater danger. The Australian government should instead genuinely protect them by transferring them to Australia.”

Since 2013, Australia has sent asylum seekers who try to reach the country by boat to cramped and dirty offshore processing centers in PNG and Nauru. Male asylum seekers have been transferred to PNG’s Manus Island, while men, women, and children have gone to Nauru. Under a regional resettlement arrangement, those sent to Manus who are recognized as refugees are to be settled in other parts of PNG.

Australia’s policy of warehousing asylum seekers in PNG in harsh and dangerous conditions has been cited approvingly by European ultranationalist politicians as a way to deter boat migrants.

“The so-called ‘Australian model’ of dealing with refugees and asylum seekers ‎is no model to follow in Europe or anywhere else – the system has led to misery, suffering, and even suicide,” Pearson said.

Under the Australian government’s new plan to close the main center, refugees will be moved to a transit facility or other housing on Manus Island, settled elsewhere in PNG, or be resettled to the Pacific island nation of Nauru or the United States. Failed asylum seekers will be returned to their home countries or moved to another facility on Manus Island.

Of the 770 men, about 600 currently live on Manus Island at the Australian-government funded main center and 65 live at a transit center. Residents may leave the main center by bus, but it is a guarded facility 30 minutes’ drive to Lorengau town, on the largely off-limits PNG Lombrum naval base. Another 35 or so have signed settlement papers to remain in PNG, although only about four of these are working and financially independent. Authorities have temporarily transferred about 70 men to a motel in Port Moresby, PNG’s capital, for medical treatment; it is unclear if they will be returned to Manus Island after October 31.

A Human Rights Watch team visited Manus Island and Port Moresby in September 2017 and interviewed 40 refugees and asylum seekers (including asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected) from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Sudan. The team also interviewed several former and current service providers on the island and PNG government officials.
Human Rights Watch found that 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. In at least three serious attacks since June, victims required emergency medical attention in Port Moresby or Australia.
Many refugees and asylum seekers now refuse to leave the centers out of fear for their safety, or only leave for brief periods traveling in groups. They told Human Rights Watch that local police and PNG and Australian authorities have made little effort to prevent crimes or investigate attacks against them.
A Rohingya refugee said, “If you go to the police station they don’t do a proper investigation so we don’t bother to go to the station. Because we have had bad experiences on Manus. I have been scared since I have been here.”
Those living in the main center have had access to a medical clinic and, with difficulty, transportation to Port Moresby or occasionally Australia for serious medical problems. Several refugees who recently suffered knife attacks sought treatment at a local hospital, but said that hospital staff were unable to treat them.
Refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island do not receive adequate access to mental health services, and this will worsen with the withdrawal of Australian service providers, Human Rights Watch said. Without adequate support, long periods of detention, uncertainty, and exposure to violence have had a devastating impact on their mental well-being. Medical experts from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have said the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers and refugees in PNG and Nauru had no pre-existing mental health conditions prior to their detention on Manus, even though a considerable proportion had been exposed to trauma in their home countries.
Australian authorities transferred a refugee with a mental health condition to a psychiatric facility in Port Moresby, where he said staff beat him and detained him for about three weeks in dirty and crowded conditions. Two refugees with histories of mental health conditions reportedly committed suicide on Manus in separate incidents in 2017.
“Australia sent refugees and asylum seekers to Manus who may have faced trauma at home but were otherwise healthy,” Pearson said. “Four years later, a significant number are killing themselves and self-harming.”
A PNG official familiar with the situation on Manus described the settlement of refugees in PNG as a “failure.” The US government decision to accept 24 Manus Island refugees under an Australian-US resettlement deal does not excuse the Australian government for its unwillingness to admit any of these refugees to Australia, Human Rights Watch said.
So long as refugees and asylum seekers remain on Manus Island, Australia and PNG should consider deploying Australian federal police in an advisory role with Manus local police to help prevent crimes and ensure that crimes committed are fully investigated. Australia should also ensure that they all receive access to adequate medical and mental health care.
The asylum seekers sent to Manus were all initially detained at the main center. Since January 2015, PNG and Australian authorities have transferred approximately 100 men found to be refugees to a transit center in Lorengau town. The governments have tried to convince more refugees to go to the transit center, but most refuse claiming they do not feel safe there and do not want to settle in PNG.
“The four-year Australian government human experiment on Manus Island has been disastrous for the safety and well-being of the asylum seekers sent there,” Pearson said. “It’s hard to believe the situation could get worse, but the proposed shutdown of the main facility would expose the refugees and asylum seekers to even greater harm.”

Refugees and asylum seekers protest against Australia’s offshore processing policy at a detention center on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.

© 2017 Private

Background on Australia’s offshore processing policy on Manus Island
Since July 2013, Australia has put in place “offshore processing” arrangements with PNG and Nauru for asylum seekers who try to reach Australia by boat.

A memorandum of understanding between Australia and PNG states that those transferred will be treated “with dignity and respect and in accordance with relevant human rights standards.” Australia shares responsibility with PNG for human rights violations committed against the refugees, asylum seekers, and rejected asylum seekers.

Australia covers all costs associated with the offshore processing of those sent to Manus Island and Nauru. In May, the Australian government confirmed that it had spent A$4.89 billion (US$3.83 billion) on its Nauru and Manus operations since 2012. A private company, Broadspectrum (previously Transfield), hired by the Australian government, runs the main center and provides services at the transit center in conjunction with PNG immigration.

The Manus Island main center is located on a naval base, and until last year was completely closed with detainees having no liberty to leave except the occasional supervised excursion by bus. In April 2016, the PNG Supreme Court ruled that the detention of asylum seekers and refugees on Manus was unconstitutional and called upon the Australian and PNG governments to take “all steps necessary to cease and prevent the continued unconstitutional and illegal detention of the asylum seekers or transferees at the relocation center on Manus Island and the continued breach of the asylum seekers or transferees constitutional and human rights.”

PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill immediately asked Australia to find alternative arrangements for asylum seekers and for recognized refugees who do not wish to stay in PNG. Australia resisted the decision, but in August 2016, both governments announced they would close the center. A deadline was set for October 31, 2017.

Many refugees have resisted moving from the main center to the transit center or other accommodation in the main town, Lorengau, because these facilities are less secure. UNHCR said in April 2016 that 411 refugees refused to apply for visas that would lead to their movement to the transit center, many citing safety concerns. A number of recent attacks have occurred close to the transit center and suggest that some local men are targeting the refugees living there.

The PNG government has found most of the men remaining on PNG to be refugees, while approximately 200 have had their asylum claims rejected. About 550 others have accepted voluntary assisted returns to their home countries, including an unknown number of people with refugee status who signed waivers to return home. Seven people have been forcibly returned. The Australian government does not appear to do any monitoring of those who return to their home countries.

PNG’s refugee status determination process falls far short of international standards. The law does not contain any protection against refoulement and the definition of “refugee” in PNG’s Migration Regulation goes well beyond the very strict grounds of exclusion under the Refugee Convention, which PNG has ratified.

Human Rights Watch previously visited Manus Island in 2015 and reported that men on Manus suffered severe abuse, inhumane treatment, and neglect. Australian authorities are well aware of the abuses on Manus Island. The Australian Human Rights Commission, UNHCR, a Senate Committee, independent experts, and UN experts have each highlighted many of these practices and called on the government to change them. The Australian government’s persistent failure to address widely reported abuses committed under its authority on Manus Island strongly suggests that they are promoted or condoned as a matter of policy.

Robberies, Violence, and Impunity
While many Papuans have welcomed the new arrivals to Manus Island, nearly every refugee and asylum seeker Human Rights Watch interviewed described how they had experienced or witnessed violence, threats of violence, or robberies by groups of often intoxicated young local men. They said assailants carried knives, machetes, sticks, and screwdrivers, and sometimes threw rocks or used slingshots. These attacks occurred during both day and night. All said they experienced harassment or verbal abuse by local men.

Two men described knife attacks that required medical treatment.

An Iranian refugee, Masoud (not his real name), said that in late July he was approached by a group of intoxicated men in Ward One of Lorengau town in the early morning hours. The men, several of whom Masoud recognized, asked him to sit down and drink with them.

Masoud said:


After 10 minutes, I got up to leave, and one man said, “No, give everything to us.” He had a kitchen knife. Some of them had machetes. He held the knife to my neck. I took my bag off and put it on the ground. But still he kept the knife to my throat. I tried to move away, to sit down. He got angry that I was moving away. I said, “Don’t worry, whatever you want you can take.” He said, “I hate white men.”

Masoud said he saw a local man he knew standing nearby:

I asked for his help. But they were together, the knife guy threw my bag to his friend, talking in local language. Then he said, “Give me your hand.” I said, “Don’t kill me, please. We are friends.” And he pulled me by the hand, he was dragging me into bushes… I tried to take my arm away and then he slashed the knife across my wrist. It was very sharp. I held my hand and walked away. There was lots of bleeding. My tendon was cut. I ran to the governor’s house and asked for help. One old lady she tried to wrap it with a dress. They called a vehicle to take me to Lorengau hospital. But that dress it was full of blood. Soaking. So they brought me a towel.

A local man on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island slashed a knife across Masoud’s (not his real name) wrist in July 2017. Masoud has been held in Papua New Guinea for four years under Australia’s offshore processing policy. 

© 2017 Private

A local man on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island slashed Masoud’s (not his real name) wrist with a knife in July 2017. Masoud has been held in Papua New Guinea for four years under Australia’s offshore processing policy. 

© 2017 Human Rights Watch
Another knife attack occurred about 10 a.m. in late June. A Bangladeshi asylum seeker, Jahim (not his real name), said that he and another Bangladeshi came from the main center into Lorengau town to buy a chicken. A group of local men cornered them in an isolated area and demanded they hand over their phones and belongings. Initially Jahim resisted. A man put a knife to his throat. “I was too late in handing over the phone,” Jahim said. “It’s the only way to call my family. Then he cut me here.” He showed Human Rights Watch a long scar at his elbow.

Jahim (not his real name) has spent more than four years on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island under Australia’s offshore processing policy. An assailant cut Jahim across his elbow and robbed him of his phone in June 2017. 

© 2017 Human Rights Watch

In August, Ahmad (not his real name), an Iranian asylum seeker was attacked so severely that his skull was fractured and he required emergency medical treatment in Australia. He told Human Rights Watch:

I was walking to the supermarket late at night and I don’t remember what happened to me. In the morning when I woke up others told me that someone had hit me in the head with a metal rod and had stolen my money, my cellphone, and my friend’s phone. The day after when I returned to the camp, I went to see a doctor at IHMS (International Health and Medical Services) because my head still hurt very badly and I could not really move my neck. After taking an X-ray, the doctor told me that my skull was fractured and immediately hospitalized me.

After two days, medical staff transferred Ahmad to Port Moresby, and after several days, he was sent to a hospital in Brisbane, Australia. He said:

I don’t know the people who hit me. I had not gotten in trouble with anyone. They hit me and I felt unconscious and they stole my belongings. I didn’t get a chance to file a complaint because I was hospitalized and transferred immediately. Manus is a very unsafe place but I still did not expect to be beaten for a small amount of cash and cellphones. If they had asked for them, I would have given them what they wanted. They beat me in way that I could have died.

About 10 p.m. one September evening, a large group of local youths beat two Afghans near the transit center. Raul (not his real name) said, “I went out and they wanted to fight us. I said, ‘We are friends, we do not fight.’ But they did not understand us. They dragged me off the road. They beat me with sticks, with rocks, until I fell down dizzy. They took my phone, my money.” When Human Rights Watch interviewed Raul four days later, his face was still swollen from the beating: “I hadn’t left the transit center in three months because I don’t feel safe. This is the third or fourth time I have had an incident like this happen to me.”

A Pakistani refugee described being robbed at knifepoint about 3 p.m. in Lorengau town in September: “I went with my friend to buy a chicken in Ward Six. I was talking to my family on the phone. Six locals came and one of them put a knife to my neck and said, ‘Leave the phone.’ They took my phone and ran away.”

A Rohingya refugee described being attacked on a July afternoon: “I was in the local market buying vegetables and the other refugees were also buying vegetables. They left the market, they were followed, and there were not many people. The group of locals threatened them with knives and sticks. The men gave them whatever they had.”

Many refugees and asylum seekers said that they felt the situation had been getting worse in recent months and as a result were too fearful to travel to town anymore. One refugee said, “Before the buses were full coming to town, now hardly anyone wants to come. Everyone is afraid.” A Pakistani refugee who stayed at the transit center for more than two years said, “Before, the locals were very nice when we were a small community. But now they are rude, they are always saying abuse to us – calling us terrorists, criminals.”

A Rohingya refugee from Burma said:

I am so fearful every time I come to town, I just can’t wait to get back to the center. Many of my friends have been beaten, they have been robbed, they have been assaulted. There is no one here to protect us. It wasn’t that bad in the beginning when we started to come out, but it is getting worse. I haven’t left the center since one and a half months ago. This place is very isolated, the locals have no understanding of people from other countries. We are walking around in nice clean clothes with mobile phones. The locals don’t know what it means to be a refugee, they only know we are prisoners, they were told we are bad people.

A Papuan from Manus said, “It’s hard for the refugees here. They have no wontok (tribal familial bonds) here. It’s dangerous for them to walk around, especially alone in areas like Ward Six.”

Police Abuse, Harassment and Inaction
Interviewees said that they had little faith in the local police, particularly after police and Manus residents stormed the main center during February 2014 protests. One asylum seeker died and 51 were injured, some seriously, including one man shot in the buttocks. An Australian senate committee said it “received convincing evidence that members of the PNG Police mobile squad did enter Mike compound [at the main center] and that as they did so they discharged their firearms.” A later senate report stated, “The committee noted evidence of concerns about a lack of fair treatment towards refugees and asylum seekers by PNG authorities, including local police.”

PNG police have also allegedly beat refugees and asylum seekers. An Iranian asylum seeker said that in August 2016 he told Australian Border Force (ABF) staff about sexual harassment by one of the PNG guards at the main center:

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.”

Two refugees described how they and another refugee were attacked by four Papuans in town in January at about 5:30 p.m. They said the assailants stole their phones and money while other Papuans watched and laughed. Police arrived and arrested the three refugees, telling them that they were disturbing “our local people.” One refugee said that they were detained in the police lockup for 24 hours without food. “My friend was crying and scared, and then one of the police kicked him in the mouth,” he said. “He fell down and there was lots of blood.”

The refugees said that many had stopped reporting cases to the police because of these incidents and police inaction. “We have no money, no connections,” an Iranian refugee said. “How can we defend ourselves?”

Neither of the victims of the knife attacks reported them to the police, nor did the two Afghans who were beaten up. One Afghan said, “The police don’t help. They don’t want to help us. They will still tell you, ‘Why are you coming outside and moving around for what? You should stay there, in the camp.’” Jahim, the Bangladeshi knife attack victim, said, “I didn’t tell the police. The police are not listening to us [refugees]. It’s not my country. Now when I see Papuans, I feel scared. I don’t come to town.”

Authorities immediately transferred Masoud, the Iranian knifing victim, to Port Moresby and he has not returned to Manus. A witness to the incident who saw Masoud at the hospital said he went to the police that morning to report the incident, leaving the victims at the hospital. He hoped that the police would put pressure on PNG and Australian immigration officials to take prompt action. But according to the witness, the police officer said: “There’s nothing I can do to help you guys.”

Other refugees and asylum seekers said that they had reported robberies, but police had done nothing to investigate or apprehend the attackers. The police in PNG have a poor reputation for investigating complaints. A foreigner visiting Lorengau said she witnessed a group of Papuans beating a local man with a disability and tried to report it to the police. “The police refused to investigate the attack,” she said. “I ran to the police station and told them what was happening. They said, ‘Get in the car,’ but I didn’t want to. I said, ‘I will walk.’ Then they drove off in the opposite direction.”

Refugees and asylum seekers protest against Australia’s offshore processing policy at a detention center on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.

© 2017 Private

Inadequate Medical Care
The two knifing victims each immediately went to the local hospital in Lorengau. Jahim said hospital staff said they could not treat him, and only offered him some pain relief. Jahim then took a taxi to the main center on the naval base, which maintains the IHMS medical clinic. From there, authorities sent Jahim by plane to a hospital in Port Moresby for surgery.

Masoud also went to the Lorengau hospital. He said he received no proper medical treatment for the injury: “The medical staff said to me, ‘We don’t have any equipment to treat you here and you should go to IHMS.’”

Returning to the IHMS medical clinic at the main center, Masoud had his wound cleaned and stitched up. He said that the next day center staff told him that he would be sent to Brisbane or Sydney for treatment, but he was instead sent to Port Moresby in an air ambulance. At the hospital there, he refused to let the doctor perform surgery on his wrist because he did not trust his capabilities.

Raul, one of the Afghans who was beaten, said that after he returned to the transit center, he had to wait for five hours before PNG immigration staff would drive him to the Lorengau hospital. At the hospital, he received only basic medical treatment, an injection and a pain reliever.

Mental Health Concerns
Refugees and asylum seekers spoke with Human Rights Watch about their psychological distress, including self-harm attempts and wanting to end their lives. Several men showed researchers their scars from cutting their arms or their chest. Two separate deaths of refugees in August and September were reportedly suicides – an Iranian and a Sri Lankan. Both lived in the transit center and had mental health conditions.

Australian medical personnel transferred Masoud, the Iranian refugee whose wrist was slashed in an attack, to a dirty and crowded local mental health institution in Port Moresby, where he said staff beat him. He said:

The first day I arrived there, they bashed me up during the night shift. About six or seven security staff dragged me on the ground, they hit me in the face with my thongs. They pulled me into the corridor. Many Papuans were watching. I was screaming. They opened my wound and it was bleeding. Almost one hour they were bashing me. I had an inflamed eye after the attack. They were dragging me around, trying to drag me to a cell. When I went in that cell there were about 20 Papuans in there.

Masoud said he stayed in the mental hospital for three weeks:

We slept on the floor. There was only one dirty bed. They gave me pills – I think they were antidepressants and antibiotics. For one week I was locked in the cell. Then they let me out. I tried to talk to them in English, the PNG psychologists they were trying to help get me out. They said, “You shouldn’t be here.”

Masoud believes the PNG psychologists contacted the Australian Border Force and IHMS who then collected him.

Refugees and asylum seekers said they have developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, inability to sleep, and short-term memory loss on the island. UNHCR has noted the link between these conditions and indefinite detention. In 2016, UNHCR found that 88 percent of 181 refugees and asylum seekers surveyed on Manus had a “depressive or anxiety disorder and/or post-traumatic stress disorder.” Many of the men interviewed had witnessed or been directly affected by the violent assaults on asylum seekers and refugees in February 2014.

There is inadequate access to mental health support and services on Manus Island generally. Refugees and asylum seekers at the soon-to-be-closed main center have on-site access to IHMS, the private contractor hired by the Australian government, and counseling services by Offshore Service for Survivors of Torture and Trauma. But residents of the transit center have much more limited access to IHMS and otherwise must go the Lorengau hospital. UNHCR’s medical experts concluded that the dire mental health crisis on Manus cannot be appropriately addressed in PNG, and that those with mental health conditions should be transferred back to Australia as a matter of urgency.

Settlement of Refugees in PNG
In four years, 35 refugees have accepted settlement in PNG, but only four of these are working and self-reliant. A PNG official told Human Rights Watch:

Settlement has failed. We have delivered, we have done what we can. Now you need to take these people. The refugees aren’t safe. The pay is terrible, only 3 kina [US$0.94] an hour. The Australian government has to subsidize it so they can make ends meet, but what happens when the Australians remove that support?

PNG’s official settlement policy welcomes refugees to settle in PNG so long as they are self-sustaining. But the reality for foreigners without money or connections, many of whom do not speak English, is very different. UNHCR has also said that:

Measures intended to help facilitate integration in PNG have not worked, and that PNG’s Refugee Policy in particular, has caused a number of difficulties for refugees. Pursuant to this policy, refugees must receive support which is comparable to that made available to local people (and therefore does not take into account their inherent disadvantages); and a refugee must first establish “effective settlement” and financial independence before they can sponsor their family to join them, disregarding the “established fact that the unity of the family is a key facilitator of effective settlement.”

Refugees who have left Manus have described their lives in Port Moresby’s dangerous neighborhoods. One refugee living in the Port Moresby suburb of Gerehu said, “We can hear gunshots at night. A person was killed last week. It is not safe at all.” A refugee staying in the suburb of Boroko said that in broad daylight a raskol (criminal) gang came into the motel where he stayed and at gunpoint forced a Papuan man to hand over the keys to his car.