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Seven years on, refugees are still stuck on Manus Island in Australia

Entering its seventh year, Australia’s offshore detention centre on Manus Island holds fewer than 140 refugee men after thousands were sent to Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru in a bid to deter people from seeking asylum in Australia by boat. While the centre is closing down, the loose ends left behind are devastating.

In six months, the PNG government intends to take control of the services for the remaining refugees. They are some of the most complex cases, stuck in tropical purgatory amid a wary local population. When asked how urgent the situation was, Charles Benjamin, the governor of Manus Island, said action was needed “the sooner the better”.

“If your destination has not been decided and you do not know what your future would be for the last six to seven years, you would be uncomfortable, and you would want to know what your future would be,” he said at a press conference on Monday 22 July.

Manus Island detention centre

Once peaceful and picturesque, with untapped tourism potential, the name Manus Island is now synonymous with arbitrary detention and human rights abuses. The Manus Regional Processing Centre was one of a number of offshore Australian immigration detention facilities. It was closed on 31 October 2017 after a brutal 24-day standoff.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has cited the centre as an “indictment of a policy meant to avoid Australia’s international obligations.”

However, the dozens of detainees who are still on the island were moved to a new accommodation closer to the city. They now live in three compounds – East Lorengau transit centre, Hillside Haus, and West Lorengau. Each camp is on the outskirts of town, down long dirt roads leading into thick jungle, the entrance to the centres is manned by Paladin guards. The detainees are not allowed visitors and must abide by a 6pm to 6am curfew. If they want to find work, or organise travel, they must go through JDA Wokman, the logistics contractor.

The cases of detained refugee, men who have met local women who gave birth to children has caused issues on multiple fronts. The number of children born to these relationships isn’t clear and has been reported to be anywhere between seven and 39. The PNG authorities have also been slow at providing adequate documentation for the children, prompting concerns over their future rights as citizens.

Who is left?

Among the 140 refugees still on Manus Island is Moz Azimi, a young Kurdish man who spent nearly six years on Manus Island and was on track to be accepted for resettlement by the US. He was brought to Port Moresby for his first interview, where the US insists the process must be carried out. For reasons Azimi doesn’t understand, they said he had to go back to Manus before they would bring him back for the second interview. He was so traumatised by his experience and he could not endure returning.

As a result, he lives in limbo in Moresby where he was taken in by a sympathetic local family with little means of support. He must be interviewed in the Papua New Guinea capital to have a chance of escaping this heartbreaking situation but he must return to Manus Island first.

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper he described the torment he has is going through:

“When I play music it helps me to not harm myself or think about many terrible things. I have nightmares every night, but I think playing guitar is helping.”

Azimi says he was cut off from the financial and medical support provided to refugees because he refused to return to Manus Island. Now he lives a largely anonymous life in the Port Moresby community and he isn’t allowed to work while he struggles to afford healthcare.

Current situation

After the Australian Liberal Party were (unexpectedly, according to polls) re-elected in the 2019 Australian federal election in May, reports of despair and attempted self-harm and suicide were reported from Manus Island. Many of the remaining refugees had placed his hopes on the Labor Party because they had pledged to accept New Zealand’s offer to resettle some of the refugees. The victory of the Liberal Party to those refugees meant that that they would be stuck on the island.

By the 4th of June there had been at least 26 attempts of suicide or self-harm by men in the Lorengau camps and Port Moresby inside the hospital and accommodation for sick asylum seekers.

According to PEN International, “Manus Island has become notorious for its ill-treatment of detainees where violence, sexual abuse and self-harm are reportedly common”.

Proposed solutions

As the Australian government faces increasing pressure to end the system, it’s also becoming increasingly apparent that the system was implemented without a complete exit plan.

There is no obvious solution to return those who have not been declared as refugees and who refuse to be sent back to their country of origin. Iran, for example, will not take its citizens back.

The governor of Manus Island, Charlie Benjamin, says Australia must “step up” and help resettle refugees from his province to a third country, saying the “uncomfortable” situation requires urgent action.

“People have been there for quite a long time, we sympathise with them,” Benjamin said. “We want their travel to come to an end, they have to find a place to go to, but I think the onus is really on Australia, because they [the refugees] don’t want to be in Papua New Guinea,” he told The Guardian.

Meanwhile, at a press conference on Monday 22 July following bilateral talks between Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, and PNG’s prime minister, James Marape, Marape said that people were “living freely” on Manus Island.

“The detention centre on Manus Island is closed, it has been closed for some time. There is no detention centre on Manus Island,” Morrison said. “I think it’s important that Australians are no longer told that somehow there is a detention centre that’s operating on Manus Island, ” commented Morrison.

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