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Issue #1729      May 4, 2016

Offshore detention


The Human Rights Commission was among the many individuals and organisations to welcome the ruling by the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea that the detention of refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island is illegal. The Court has ordered Australia and Papua New Guinea to take immediate steps to end the detention of asylum seekers.

All five judges unanimously ruled that detention in the facility violates the right to personal liberty, as guaranteed in Papua New Guinea’s constitution.

The ruling is clear: the detention of 900 men at the Australian-built facility on Manus Island is illegal and unconstitutional and must end immediately.

“The Court’s decision affirms the Commission’s long-standing concern that the prolonged and indefinite detention of refugees and asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea may lead to breaches of our obligations under international law,” said President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs.

“This ruling is further confirmation that Australia’s detention policies are increasingly out of step with international norms,” she said. The Commission – along with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the United Nations Committee against Torture – have all expressed concern about the arbitrary detention of refugees and asylum seekers in Regional Processing Centres.

Numerous studies, including the Commission’s The Forgotten Children Report, have shown that prolonged detention has negative impacts on the health and wellbeing of refugees and asylum seekers.

While the Commission welcomes efforts to release people from detention in Papua New Guinea, it points out that the future of the men remains profoundly uncertain.

UNHCR has previously stated that the sustainable integration of these refugees into the Papua New Guinea community “will raise formidable challenges and protection concerns.”

The Commission also holds ongoing concerns for the safety of same-sex attracted refugees and asylum seekers who have been sent to Papua New Guinea, where same-sex sexual activity is criminalised.

The action to enforce the constitutional rights of the asylum seekers sent to Manus by the Australian government will seek more explicit orders from the court for the release and return to Australia of those asylum seekers and refugees.

Always illegal

The proceedings will also seek orders in relation to all aspects of the breach of their human rights endured since 2013, and will seek compensation for those human rights’ breaches.

The Australian and PNG governments have not just breached the constitutional right to personal liberty, but have also denied them the protection of law (in regard to access to legal representation and the courts); freedom from torture and inhuman conduct; their right to be treated with humanity and “with respect for the dignity of the person”.

Regardless of any future arrangement between the Australian government and PNG, all the asylum seekers and refugees presently in Papua New Guinea are covered by the present Supreme Court general ruling.

“It is shocking that Opposition Immigration spokesperson, Richard Marles, is demanding any continuation of offshore detention in Papua New Guinea. The Labor Party should take the opportunity to admit it’s been a terrible mistake and to drop its offshore policy,” said Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition.

“Not only have people been detained for almost three years, they have suffered appalling human rights abuses over that time for which government Ministers and corporations must be held to account.

“The Manus people must be brought to the mainland. After three years of torture, the hell of Christmas Island is no alternative to the hell of Manus Island.

“The talk of sending them to Nauru is just wishful thinking by Peter Dutton. Besides being unseemly, such a move would be politically impossible. Nauru is in meltdown. And public opinion is running against the idea. The Let Them Stay movement has already won majority opinion for those from Nauru and Manus to be able to stay in Australia.”

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton is ducking and diving, but in the end, there is only one alternative – to close Manus and Nauru; and bring all the refugees and asylum seekers to Australia. The Manus detainees in detention in Australian mainland detention centres should be set free immediately.

Next article – Editorial – Money, arrogance in child abduction attempt

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