Court ruling risks refugees’ lives at Manus Island

November 10, 2017 HUMAN RIGHTS

AAP photo



Amnesty International


Critical services, including food, water and medical treatment, must be restored to the more than 600 refugees and vulnerable men inside the Lombrum detention centre on Manus Island before a major tragedy occurs, human rights NGO Amnesty International stated, as researchers returned from Manus Island.

Refugees and vulnerable men should not be forcibly relocated until such time as their dignity and safety can be guaranteed.

“Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court rejected a last ditch attempt by refugees to have these essential services restored and their rights protected. The decision is an abhorrent attack on the right to life,” said Kate Schuetze, Amnesty International’s Pacific Researcher.

“If authorities don’t act immediately, there is a real risk that the situation will catastrophically deteriorate. The lives of these men, who are only asking for their rights to dignity and safety, are at serious risk.”

“In 2013, when I first visited the detention centre on Manus Island a number of refugees described conditions as a ‘psychological war’ designed to break people mentally. Four years later, cruel tactics are still being used to pressure refugees to relocate or settle in PNG. The situation has deteriorated to a point of utter despair.”

Amnesty International researchers witnessed an emerging catastrophe when they visited Papua New Guinea (PNG) from 27 October to 7 November. The current situation on Manus Island amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, a violation of the UN Convention against Torture.

“This is the third time I have visited Manus Island, but what we witnessed there over the past week shocked me to the core. This is a desperate situation on the brink of a catastrophe,” said Kate Schuetze.

“That the Australian and PNG authorities have created such a crisis, leaving vulnerable refugees who sought Australia’s protection in such a desperate situation is callous, cruel and completely disgraceful.”

“There must be an immediate resolution to this crisis. Services must be restored, and the refugees must be supported at the centre until they can move to a place of safety and dignity.”

The men have refused to move to new locations because of violent attacks against them which the authorities have failed to prevent. Approximately 600 refugees and vulnerable men remaining in the detention centre have had limited access to food water and medical care since services were withdrawn on 31 October. Attempts to deliver food to the centre have been actively blocked by the PNG authorities.

“Forcing these men to choose between food, water and medicine or moving to a place where they have a well-founded fear of violence and other attacks against them amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” said Kate Schuetze.

“Papua New Guinea is not an appropriate place to settle vulnerable people who have fled persecution and came seeking safety and Australia’s protection. The country does not have the systems in place to enable a safe and dignified life for the refugees, and local people have made it clear they want the men to go to Australia.”

Amnesty International has long called for the Australian Government to end the offshore processing and to bring the men to Australia and fulfil its obligation under international law to process their refugee claims. This remains Australia’s responsibility.

However, as Australia seems determined to ignore and show contempt for the law, Amnesty International is now calling for other countries to resettle the men from PNG.

“This flagrant breach of Australia’s legal and moral responsibility is unacceptable. As the government seems intent on reneging on all its international obligations, we now have to look to other countries to help take in the men, and offer them safety, dignity and a future,” said Kate Schuetze.

Australia must facilitate, and not obstruct resettlement to third countries. New Zealand, for example, has repeatedly offered protection to refugees on Manus Island but been blocked by Australia.



Lives endangered


The health of refugees is at risk from a lack of clean drinking water and poor sanitation with conditions rapidly deteriorating each day. The men are also without electricity in the stifling tropical heat.

There is no medical care available to the men at the centre and it is not clear if any help will be forthcoming if there is a medical emergency.

In the past 10 days, while Amnesty International was in Papua New Guinea, refugees reported three medical emergencies. In one case, a refugee who has epilepsy, had a fit and was unconscious for several hours. Refugees called to guards to provide medical assistance but there was no response. In another incident, a refugee self-harmed and, while physically stable, he remained in a fragile mental state, supported only by his friends.

On the evening of 4 November, a refugee with a known heart condition collapsed. Refugees called an emergency number for assistance, but no one answered. PNG Police, who were flagged down in a vehicle outside the centre, refused to provide assistance. After more than four hours, he was taken to Lorengau Hospital, but no specialist cardiac care was available. While he was later discharged, he remains at risk of further medical complications. The denial of medical care, in itself, may amount torture under international law.

There is also deep concern that as people start to run out of medication, the situation will become more serious – possibly endangering lives of refugees. Many refugees are already suffering from chronic mental health issues as a result of their prolonged detention and uncertainty about their future.



From one centre of abuse to another


The current situation stems from Australia’s decision to move the refugees from one centre to another, even though this does nothing whatsoever to address the fundamental problems of Australia’s harmful refugee policies or remedy the illegality of these practices.

There is no clear plan for the settlement of refugees in a safe country and the prolonged uncertainty remains. The refugees’ continue to have an inability to work or move around freely, and have strong concern for their safety. The move to the new locations, if anything, exacerbates the risks to the refugees who live in fear of attacks by some elements in the local population who have made clear they do not want the refugees in PNG.

Amnesty International’s research confirms that refugee fears for their safety, should they be forced to move closer to town, are well founded. One Bangladeshi refugee told us of an incident in Lorengau four months ago, when he was robbed, assaulted and attacked with a machete in broad daylight. He received stitches to the wound and has been left with a long scar on his elbow which is still swollen and continues to give him pain. We were told of other cases where refugees have been robbed or assaulted in town, fuelling widespread fear.

“The Papua New Guinean and Australian authorities must ensure there is no attempt to forcibly move the refugees and immediately restore food, water and electricity and allow health care workers access to the refugees. There must be clear and prompt plans to move refugees and vulnerable men to countries where they can be safely resettled and ensure a fair process for their claim for international protection,” said Kate Schuetze.



Authoritites must allow aid in and not use force to move refugees out


Responding to a notice issued by Papua New Guinea (PNG) authorities on Thursday morning at the Lombrum refugee detention centre on Manus Island stating that refugees must leave the centre by 11 November or be forcibly removed, Amnesty International said:

It is imperative that the PNG and Australian authorities immediately allow aid into the camp, and that they do not respond to the worsening conditions in the Lombrum detention centre by attempting to forcibly move the refugees to other locations. Any use of force in this highly charged environment is likely to lead to serious injury or loss of life.

Amnesty International researchers have just returned from Manus Island where they witnessed first-hand the shocking conditions at the centre.

“This is a man-made crisis. It is the Australian and PNG governments who have left the men without food, clean water, proper sanitation or electricity.  They cannot, having created the situation, now compound it by sending in security forces to force the refugees to move,” said Kate Schuetze, Amnesty International’s Pacific Researcher.

“There is a solution to what we are seeing inside the camp – immediately allow humanitarian assistance in to restore access to food, water, electricity and health care.  This is the only option that would be compatible with international human rights law at this point.”

Amnesty International has long called for the camp on Manus Island to be closed and the refugees brought to safety in Australia.  What has happened is closure of one camp, and opening another, in a location where the refugees would be even less safe.

With all services cut off the situation has, predictably, deteriorated badly in the camp.  Unless services are restored people will become ill and deaths are a real possibility.  Already several refugees have been taken ill in the deplorable conditions at Lombrum.  At the weekend one man with a heart condition collapsed and medical aid took several hours to arrive.

Amnesty International is concerned that the authorities will use the shocking footage as a pretext to send in security forces and forcibly move the refugees to new locations.

“We are putting the governments of PNG and Australia on notice:  using force will almost inevitably lead to serious human rights violations.  The consequences of any such decision are foreseeable and it would be a grave matter if the authorities took any action that could result in serious injury or deaths,” said Kate Schuetze.

“There is a clear, alternative, course of action. Services must be restored until a safe and dignified solution to the situation is agreed, one that respect the rights of the refugees.”

The decision by PNG and Australia to cut off all services at Lombrum appears to have been calculated to force the refugees to move to new locations.  However, the refugees have told Amnesty International they are determined not to move because they fear for their safety in the new sites.  Amnesty International’s research confirms their fears are well-founded.  Refugees have been attacked and seriously injured by some members of the local population who have made clear they do not want the men on PNG.  Refugees have little or no protection from these attacks except to live inside detention centres.

“Deliberately denying refugees food and water in a context where they cannot support themselves in order to coerce them to move is a serious violation of their human rights. This is cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” said Kate Schuetze.

“Australia could also end the crisis by immediately bringing the refugees and vulnerable men to Australia, where they first sought protection.”





Around 600 refugees remain in the refugee detention centre on the Navy Base in Lombrum on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG), after service providers pulled out on 31 October.

The men were all forcibly transferred to PNG by the government of Australia after they tried to seek asylum in Australia. Most have been there for four and a half years.

On 31 October, the Refugee Processing Centre (RPC) which had been run by private companies under contract to the government of Australia withdrew from the centre, and the refugees were told to move to other locations on the island. Refugees told Amnesty International, that services were gradually cut in the weeks before 31 October, highlighting a pattern of both coercion and intimidation aimed at encouraging them to move. This included actions such as removing the gym, removing a points-based shop that could be used to buy phone credit and other personal items, removing power from Foxtrot compound, reducing the number of bus services to town.

In addition, refugees said that regular notices were posted within the centre stating that the PNG Defence Force would take over the facility on 1 November. Refugees felt these notices were intimidating because of an event in April, where soldiers fired shots into the centre, endangering the lives of refugees, officials and contractors at the centre.

Amnesty International visited the site of all the centres and observed a heavy private security presence by Paladin, a PNG based security company. While many of the 600 men are recognised as refugees, some have had their claim for asylum denied.

Amnesty International does not consider that the process for assessing claims for asylum has been robust enough and all of the men – those with official refugee status and those whose claims were denied – are highly vulnerable.  All of them must be removed from PNG to places where they are safe.  Those with refugee status must be resettled but those whose claims were denied on PNG must have access to fair processes to challenge the decisions made on their claims and protections must be in place to ensure they are not returned where there is a real risk of serious human rights violations.

The United States reached an agreement with the government of Australia to resettle some of the refugees trapped on Nauru and Manus Island.  However, it seems unlikely the US will take all of the men on Manus, and other countries that can offer safety to refugees must now help.

In addition, Papua New Guineans have voiced concerns about the lack of consultation for the proposed relocation and lack of adequate facilities to support refugees in the remote island community. They have called on Australia to accept its responsibility for refugees it forcibly sent to the country.






Amnesty International is a non-governmental organisation focused on human rights with over 7 million members and supporters around the world. The stated objective of the organisation is “to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights, and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated.”

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