Unfolding Humanitarian Emergency At Manus Island Detention Centre

United Nations Human Rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has described the situation at the Manus Regional Processing Centre in Australia as an “unfolding humanitarian emergency.” The centre closed on the 31st of October; despite this, 600 men are refusing to leave due to security fears. Amenities are no longer being supplied and the toilets are no longer working. According to Al Jazeera, food is running low and the men are drinking water extracted from a well they have dug in the sand. There are fears that dysentery may spread due to these poor conditions.

The Australian government runs the Manus Regional Processing Centre in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to house single male asylum seekers. The men in this camp who attempted to reach the Australian mainland via boat have however been intercepted by the Coast Guard during the voyage. Established in 2001 and closing in 2008 due to disuse, the centre reopened in 2012 after Australia saw a large increase in the number of refugees attempting to reach its shores. Prior to reopening Australia, PNG and Nauru – where another detention center is located, reached a deal whereby PNG and Nauru would receive refugees in exchange for financial incentive.

The ruling in April 2016 by the PNG Supreme Court that the detention of refugees on Manus island was illegal and in breach of fundamental human rights was a key factor in spurring the closure of the centre. Five months after this ruling, the PNG and Australian governments presented plans for the closure of the camp.This follows allegations by the UN, human rights organizations and asylum seekers themselves, of abuse, injury and uninhabitable living conditions.

The UN stated that conditions are “horrid” and that those living there are subject to “severe abuse and neglect.” There have been instances of violence towards those living in the camp. An incident in 2014 resulted in 9 people being wounded after a PNG soldier shot at the refugees. The Australian government has agreed to pay AUD$70 million in reparation to more than 1900 asylum seekers who sued the government over their alleged physical and psychological injury and abuse and false imprisonment.

As per the PNG and Australian governments plans for closure, those who have been granted asylum will be resettled in PNG once they have transited through the East Lorengau detention center. The fate of those who have not gained asylum remains unclear. Options presented by Australia include sending the asylum seeker back to their home country, to a different country or for the person to remain in detention indefinitely. The Australian government has said that it will not at any point accept these men into Australia. There is criticism of this stance, including from the MP for Green Party Australia, Nick McKim who has said that the closure of the Manus camp does not provide a solution for the issue and that “the best and easiest solution to this humanitarian disaster is to resettle the men in Australia.” He goes on to say that “These men sought refuge in Australia and they remain Australia’s responsibility, legally and morally.”

Despite the center’s closure on the 31st of October, many men are refusing to leave due to fears they have of their safety. There have been reports of attacks on the asylum seekers by locals in the PNG community. The asylum seekers fear what could happen to them outside the confines of the centre. Elaine Pearson, Australia Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said, “Refugees don’t want to move because they don’t feel safe [due to] an escalation in brutal attacks against refugees and asylum seekers in Lorengau town.” There are also reports that the centres in Lonengau are not yet complete, further deterring the refugees from leaving the centre which they are familiar with and feel a sense of safety in.

The fate of those in the Manus Regional Processing Centre will not be known for some time. In addition to fears regarding the long-term residency of these men, the UN has “serious concerns” over the welfare, safety and wellbeing of the asylum seekers on the island. Immediate action from the Australian government regarding the application for asylum and the state of living for the men on the island doesn’t appear to be forthcoming. Australia’s refugee policy needs to placed under greater scrutiny from the media and international community in order to pressure the government to provide options for these men that don’t breach their fundamental human rights.