This is breaking people: human rights violations at Australia’s asylum seeker processing centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea

Refugees Papua New Guinea Australia Manus Island

This report argues that asylum seekers detained at Australia's asylum seeker processing centre on Manus Island experience degrading conditions and serious human rights violations.

Introduction and summary

Fleeing war, chilling acts of torture, threats of death, or profound discrimination, many asylum seekers make the desperate decision to undertake a perilous ocean voyage from Indonesia and other countries, including Sri Lanka, to Australia.

In response, Australia agreed with Papua New Guinea to reopen an offshore processing facility on Manus, a remote island located 800 kilometres to the north of the capital, Port Moresby. In November 2012, it began sending asylum seekers from Christmas Island, an Australian territory south of the Indonesian island of Java, to the Manus Island facility, over 4,800 kilometres away.

Australia then announced on 19 July 2013 that all asylum seekers arriving in its territory by boat would, if they establish that they are refugees, be resettled in Papua New Guinea, not Australia.

But for its relative proximity to Australia, Papua New Guinea is not an obvious choice for refugee processing or resettlement. It is an impoverished country with high rates of unemployment, serious problems with violence—particularly against women—and a general intolerance for outsiders. Police abuse is rampant. It has a poor track record of protecting the limited numbers of refugees it has received to date. The prospects of successfully integrating larger numbers of refugees from a greater variety of cultures and faiths are dim.

Nevertheless, Australia and Papua New Guinea moved immediately to implement the agreement.

A host of human rights violations

Nearly five months into the new policy, it is clear that the Regional Resettlement Arrangement has resulted in a host of human rights violations:

  • The combination of detention practices, the many unknowns about the Refugee Status Determination process and timetable, and the lack of real options for meaningful integration into Papua New Guinea society combine to create a serious risk of refoulement, the return of individuals to places where their lives or freedom is likely to be threatened or where they are at risk of torture and other ill-treatment.
  • Asylum seekers are detained in the absence of any individualised assessment of the need for detention, with no definite date for their release, apparently without any framework in Papua New Guinea law for their detention, and no clear means to seek review of the lawfulness of their detention. The result is arbitrary detention, prohibited by customary international law and by treaties to which both Australia and Papua New Guinea are party.
  • Contrary to international law, the Regional Resettlement Arrangement with Papua New Guinea discriminates against asylum seekers on the basis of their means and date of arrival, treats as suspect all asylum seekers who arrive by boat, and penalises them for their manner of arrival.
  • The marked inadequacies of Papua New Guinea’s Refugee Status Determination processes are such that they fail to afford asylum seekers the procedural protections that are required under international law.
  • Aspects of detention on Manus Island violate the obligation to treat all persons in detention humanely. The combined effect of the conditions of detention on Manus Island, the open-ended nature of that detention, and the uncertainty about their fates to which detainees are subjected amounts to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment. Moreover, some conditions of detention, particularly the housing of detainees in P Dorm, on their own violate the prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment.

Australia is responsible for these violations because it has effective power and control over the detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island. Its authorities intercept and apprehend asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat. These asylum seekers are detained on Australian territory before they are transferred to Papua New Guinea by security guards acting under the direction of DIBP. DIBP contracts the security guards, health providers, and other service providers who work in the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre. In fact, under the terms of the agreement between Australia and Papua New Guinea, Australia bears all the costs of implementing the Regional Resettlement Arrangement in Papua New Guinea.

Papua New Guinea, in turn, is also responsible for the human rights violations that take place in the course of implementing the Regional Resettlement Arrangement. It has accepted formal custody of asylum seekers, who are detained in Papua New Guinea and are subject to Papua New Guinea’s laws. It has done so without the capacity to process their cases fairly and in a timely way, without clear plans for how those found to be refugees will be integrated into local communities, and without obvious prospects for remedying those serious shortcomings in the foreseeable future.

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