On Tuesday, the Australian government will close the Manus Island regional processing centre in Papua New Guinea. Arguing that they have no safe place to go, nearly all 742 remaining residents are refusing to leave.
The closure is likely to generate resistance and potentially violence. Tensions continue to build between refugees, local residents and PNG authorities.
Manus – the story so far
The Howard government established the Manus Island and Nauru centres in 2001 as part of the Pacific Solution. Originally, offshore processing was characterised as a short-term response to an influx of asylum seeker boat arrivals.
However, over time, offshore processing has become cemented as a central strategy to prevent asylum seekers reaching Australian territory by boat. The government has argued that offshore processing is necessary to disincentivise dangerous and exploitative people smuggling.
In practice, by preventing the access of asylum seekers to territory under Australian jurisdiction, the government has severely curtailed the rights of vulnerable people. Asylum seekers detained offshore lack access to proper refugee protection and judicial review mechanisms, and are denied basic rights guaranteed under international law.
Australia’s treatment of refugees has been condemned by the international community. Mandatory and indefinite offshore detention contravenes Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This provision protects people from arbitrary detention and upholds their right to liberty and security.
Human rights abuses have been documented in the Manus and Nauru centres. They are overcrowded and provide insufficient medical and psychiatric support.
There have also been documented cases of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of centre security. The poor mental health of many detainees, evidenced by attempts at self-harm and suicide, exposes the mental toll of inhumane living conditions and uncertainty about the future.
In April 2016, the PNG Supreme Court found that the arrangement between PNG and Australia to establish and maintain the Manus centre was unconstitutional. Under PNG law, the government had no power to infringe the right to liberty of the detainees.
As a result, in August 2016, the Australian and PNG governments announced that the Manus centre would close.
Over the past 14 months, Australia has attempted to move detainees from Manus through a range of means. The most prominent strategy has been an agreement with the US to take up to 2,000 people currently in detention on Manus or Nauru and ineligible for transfer to Australia.
This deal became infamous through a controversial leaked phone conversation between Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and US President Donald Trump. To date, a reported 20 people have been resettled in the US via this process.