Time to end the cruelty at Manus Island

The tragedy at Manus Island was foreseeable.

As observed by the Human Rights Law Centre, Australia has sent 1300 asylum seekers to Manus Island for ‘processing and resettlement’, but not one person has actually been processed and resettled. Asylum seekers have been left languishing in arbitrary detention in conditions the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Amnesty International have described as being inhumane and a breach of international law.

There are still no plans as to if, when or to where those asylum seekers will eventually be resettled.
Tension was entirely predictable. It has had tragic consequences. The way to prevent similar events from happening again is to process asylum seekers quickly and fairly and to treat them humanely while doing so.

The PNG and Nauru centres should be closed and the asylum seekers within brought to the Australian mainland for processing according to law.

On 25 July 2013, Liberty Victoria President, Jane Dixon SC, warned with regard to the "PNG Solution":

"Liberty is very concerned about how this policy will play out in practical terms.  Australia seems to be outsourcing its obligations to a developing country known for its fragile economy and infrastructure shortcomings.

“We run the risk of promoting an `out of sight, out of mind’ attitude towards vulnerable refugees,” she said.

“The sending to PNG of asylum seekers arriving in Australian waters by boat, while processing in Australia onshore asylum-seekers who arrive by plane, creates a two-tiered and unfair system. It is plainly in breach of Article 31(1) of the Refugees Convention that provides that States will not penalise refugees because of their manner of arrival.

“It should not be forgotten that over 90 per cent of people arriving by boat are found to be genuine refugees. These are people who are in real risk of serious harm, not economic migrants.

“As a signatory and co-drafter of the Refugees Convention, Australia has a legal and ethical obligation to honour the terms of Convention.

“Further, Australia owes a special responsibility to PNG as one of our nearest neighbours, as well as having a special responsibility to refugees fleeing persecution and lawfully seeking asylum. The Australian Government will face significant challenges in balancing these parallel obligations.

“Recent events in Nauru demonstrate the pitfalls of processing asylum seekers in isolated, developing communities. It is accepted that such conditions have serious effects on the mental wellbeing of those detained.

“Further, Australia would need to be prepared for very substantial long-term investment in public health and safety, welfare and education in order to avoid creating an unfair impost on PNG,” she said.

“This investment would need to be additional to Australia’s current foreign aid commitments in PNG and should not detract from those programs.” Ms. Dixon said that in negotiating with PNG, Australia needed to be mindful of the mistakes of colonisation.

“It should also be understood that PNG often experiences civil and political disruption and presently does not appear to have the capacity to provide adequate humanitarian relief to refugees.

“Homosexuality is still illegal in PNG. This raises particular concerns to people whose sexual orientation causes them to flee countries such as Iran and Afghanistan. Revelations today of alleged abuse of asylum seekers held offshore cast even more doubt on the Government's new policy for them.

 “Another concern is the lack of bipartisan support for the plan within PNG. Without bipartisan support, this strategy is incredibly fragile and prone to be dismantled as soon as there is a change of government in PNG.

“If treated with respect and compassion, refugees can enrich a receiving country beyond measure. We need to question how it is just or ethical to treat people who are fleeing persecution as a means to political ends.”

For comment please contact Liberty Victoria President, Jane Dixon SC, or Senior Vice President, Jessie Taylor.