The crisis on Manus Island continues as 421 refugees and asylum seekers refuse to leave the refugee processing centre on Manus Island to the alternative abodes provided. Twenty one among these refugees and asylum seekers are Sri Lankans. Since 2013 Australia has denied entry to anyone reaching its shores unofficially by boat. They were sent to refugee processing centres (RPC) in Manus Island and Nauru. However, on October 31 the controversial Manus Island detention centre was closed. This was following a judgement by the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea in April 2016. The court held that restricting the movement of asylum seekers who haven’t committed a crime was unconstitutional. Though New Zealand has made an offer to accept 150 refugees from Manus Island and Nauru, Australia has turned down the offer.
The refugees and asylum seekers claim that the alternative abodes are not yet ready and that their lives would be at risk. Their plea is to be resettled in a third country; a country other than Papua New Guinea and Australia.
The refugees claim that some of them were beaten up by locals. Activists claim that even the members of the local community are victims of Australia’s policies and that the majority of local people on Manus Island were kind and generous.
Unhygienic living conditions
According to news reports, refugees are relocated to the East Lorengau Refugee Transit Centre of West Lorengau House and those found not to be refugees were relocated to Hillside Haus on Manus Island. However, the refugees and the asylum seekers have shared videos on social media which show that there was no water and air conditioners and that washing machines weren’t working. They also pointed out that there was no power at the West Haus centre. In the absence of water toilets are filthy. Journalist Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian refugee, tweeted that a refugee suffering from heart pain has been awaiting the arrival of a doctor for two days, at Hillside.
The 421 refugees and asylum seekers, who have refused to be relocated, remain at the Manus Island RPC. Water, food, electricity and medical services have been cut off as the centre has been officially shut down. The shortage of clean water and food at the Manus Island RPC has raised health concerns. Boochani tweeted that some refugees needed to see a doctor immediately. Their plea for pure water has been ignored. Immigration officials have destroyed their water tanks and contaminated water in the wells with rubbish. But the determined refugees said that they will dig a well.
The shortage of clean water and food at the Manus Island RPC has raised health concerns
Meanwhile the UNHCR regional representation in Canberra confirmed that it had observed first-hand that refugees’ and asylum-seekers’ most basic needs of food, water and physical security aren’t being met in the Regional Processing Centre on Manus Island. “Access to medical care is also very limited in Lorengau, and UNHCR has observed that serious cases requiring hospitalization can’t be adequately treated locally,” the statement read. The statement further said that the forced movement of these refugees and asylum-seekers is inappropriate and should be avoided.
UNHCR called on Australia to take responsibility and provide protection and safety to the refugees and asylum-seekers it has transferred to Papua New Guinea (PNG).
The refugees on Manus Island have fled persecution based on their political opinion, religion and ethnicity while some are stateless. Though Australia is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention asylum seekers can’t resettle in Australia. They are sent to Manus island, Nauru and other detention centers instead. In 2013 Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that asylum seekers who reach Australia by boat will have ‘no chance of being settled as refugees.’ Accordingly Australia then gave Papua New Guinea A$400m in aid in exchange for setting up the camp and resettling the refugees there.
An Iranian asylum seeker was attacked and succumbed to his injuries while 70 other asylum seekers were left injured
So far six lives have been lost at the Manus Island RPC due to suspected suicides, riots, and illnesses which didn’t receive prompt and sufficient medical attention. In 2014 riots erupted and locals entered the detention centre. An Iranian asylum seeker was attacked and succumbed to his injuries while 70 other asylum seekers were left injured.
In 2015 some 500 detainees went on a hunger strike fearing that they would be resettled in Papua New Guinea where they believed their lives would be at risk. Some detainees swallowed razor blades, some stitched their lips and four drank detergent in protest. On Good Friday this year soldiers have fired almost 100 shots at the detention centre in response to a dispute causing injuries to nine people which includes refugees and staff members.
Last month a Sri Lankan refugee was found dead on Manus Island and the cause of death was suspected to be suicide. He had been facing charges for sexual assault which he had denied. He had also been suffering from mental health issues.
When the Daillymirror inquired into the 21 Sri Lankans at the Manus Island RPC, activists told us that given the circumstances it wasn’t advisable to raise their profile. Meanwhile the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) has promised to take measures to bring back the Sri Lankan nationals in Australian refugee camps. Minister of Foreign Affairs Tilak Marapana told Parliament that the Government will bear the cost of air tickets of the returnees.
"Australia is washing its hands off international obligations"
Lakshan Dias- Human Rights Defender
Human Rights Defender and Attorney-at-Law Lakshan Dias said that by shutting down the detention centre on Manus Island, Australia was deviating further from its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention. He said that Australia was running off shore refugee processing centres which was illegal under International law.
He pointed out that even though some have been legally recognized to be refugees the Australian Government wouldn’t accept them. “They will be free people on Manus Island. But Manus Island is a small territory and you can’t do anything much. If they are brought to Australia as refugees, they can work and all the facilities are available to them under the Refugee Convention,” he said.
Even when Australia decides to deport them the GoSL can’t do anything as these asylum seekers are out of the country. It is only once they land on Katunayake Airport that the Sri Lankan Government can get involved
“Australia is a failed state because they have failed to adhere to the International law. Australia is washing its hands off international obligations,” he stressed.
Referring to the statement made by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Tilak Marapana in Parliament, Dias said that “the statement was incomplete without much legal basis.”
He explained that as these people were seeking asylum in another country, Sri Lanka couldn’t get involved. “Even when Australia decides to deport them the GoSL can’t do anything as these asylum seekers are out of the country. It is only once they land on Katunayake Airport that the Sri Lankan Government can get involved,”he stressed.
Under International law asylum seekers can’t be sent back to their country of origin-in this case Sri Lanka- without their consent, Dias pointed out. Under the Sri Lankan fundamental rights jurisdiction citizens have the freedom to return to Sri Lanka.
He said that the GoSL could both charge and detain the returnees for violating the Immigration and Emigration Act on the grounds of leaving the country through illegal means, or offer a pardon.
He observed that there have been occasions when refugees who returned to Sri Lanka were harassed. “I have submitted to world bodies information regarding refugees facing harassment, extortion, even torture at the Sri Lankan airport by the law enforcement authorities on their return,” he added.
"If they wish to return to Sri Lanka voluntarily, Sri Lanka would welcome their return"
Official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
According to the information received by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection, through the High Commission in Canberra, there were 21 Sri Lankan nationals on Manus Island as of 12 November.
An official from the Ministry, who didn’t wish to be named, said that those recognized as refugees, can settle in Papua New Guinea, as per the arrangement between the Australians and PNG Governments. “Alternatively, refugees who don’t wish to resettle in PNG can apply for resettlement in the US or apply to move to Nauru,” he said.
Those who have failed to be recognized as asylum seekers or refugees are required to return to their country of origin, and the Governments of PNG and Australia will facilitate voluntary returns, he said.
“The Government of Sri Lanka can’t force anyone to return. If they wish to return to Sri Lanka voluntarily, however, they can do so , and Sri Lanka would welcome their return,” the official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
"Govt. will bear the cost of air tickets of returnees"
Tilak Marapana- Minister of Foreign Affairs
The Minister of Foreign Affairs Tilak Marapana told Parliament that Sri Lankan refugees held in Australian detention centres for attempting to illegally enter Australia would be brought back to Sri Lanka.
He said that steps will be taken for the Government to bear the cost of the air tickets of the returnees. He revealed that there were 197 Sri Lankans who are held at various refugee centers in PNG, Nauru, Christmas Island etc.
"Refugees have a fundamental human right to seek freedom"
A community worker in contactwith refugees on Manus Island
A community worker, in contact with refugees on Manus Island, who requested anonymity, said that more than 70% of those in the detention centre have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “Some refugees have untreated physical war injuries,” she said. She said that the lack of resettlement options was the main grievance of these refugees. “They want freedom in a durable third country to re-build their lives. UNHCR has previously said that PNG isn’t a durable resettlement country,” she said. She stressed that people have been there for far too long and should be resettled quickly.
“The majority have been found to meet the criteria and have been determined to be refugees. They are refugees and have a fundamental human right to seek freedom and the opportunity to re-build their lives,” she said.
According to her until the shutdown of the detention centre people had to line up for food like in a prison. “Services slowly improved with English classes, excursions, one or two equipment in the gym,” she said.
"there is new, clean, safe alternative accommodation available to the refugees and asylum seekers"
Response from the Australian Government
In response to the escalating media reports, the Australian Government categorically rejected the claims that there was a ‘humanitarian emergency’ on Manus Island. “Refugees and failed asylum seekers staying at the RPC-site are making an informed choice to do so, and have been provided with information and assurances from the PNG Government that facilities are ready at alternative locations,” the Australian Government said in a statement.
The statement said that there was new, clean, safe alternative accommodation available to the refugees and asylum seekers.
As the PNG authorities formally closed the Manus RPC on 31 October the Department’s staff no longer had authority to remain on PNG’s Lombrum Naval Base and departed, the statement said.
“The PNG Supreme Court has refused legal applications to reopen and restore services at the former RPC. It’s important to note that the Court was “satisfied” that the Government of PNG has provided suitable alternative accommodation that allows for free movement and which is of good standard and sufficient for their daily needs,” the statement further said.
The Government also said that around 150 refugees and failed asylum seekers have moved in to the alternative a ccommodation sites.
Picture courtesy-Manus Alert on ‘Telegram’
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