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Australia forces refugees to disturbing choice

Refugees being held in Australia’s processing centre on Manus Island are being forced to choose between being resettled in Papua New Guinea or moved to custody in a new and more challenging prison, insiders have claimed to Guardian Australia.

Developments at the Manus Island regional processing centre appear to be moving to a disturbing new phase as, according to the allegations, the authorities devise methods, in violation of international legal obligations, for detainees with refugee status to be returned to the countries from which they have fled.

Those transferees at the MIRPC who have been assessed as refugees are reported to be resisting their transfer to the East Lorengau refugee transit centre, from where they are expected to transition into the PNG community.

Others are refusing to engage in the final refugee assessment round with Papua New Guinea immigration as they would prefer to stay as asylum seekers at the MIRPC. They have indicated to welfare staff at the centre they fear for their lives at the hands of the local community.

If they fail to cooperate they have been told they will be transferred to what Guardian Australia understands is a new facility at Port Moresby, along with those with a “negative” refugee assessment. They will be held there in custody and the authorities anticipate the conditions will be so intolerable they will “choose” to return home, sources say.

Insiders say those with positive assessments are well aware refugees at the East Lorengau centre are depressed and isolated, with little chance of being successfully integrated into PNG society or being able to survive financially.

The authorities are using various methods to encourage uncooperative detainees to move into the transit centre.

A source on the ground says this includes paying men at East Lorengau to make positive statements about the desirability of leaving the relative safety of the main MIRPC and then into PNG society.

“Men at the Manus Island regional processing centre are in regular contact with their friends at the refugee transfer centre, by using contraband phones. And they know that people there are depressed, hopeless and in fear of violence from local people.”

Some transferees at the ELRTC have been taken on excursions to neighbouring villages to try to convince them they should move to East Lorengau. These bus tours frequently are disastrous affairs, with the threats and intimidation making it impossible for transferees to get off the bus.

Guardian Australia has been told transferees who have refused to have their final refugee status meeting are likely be returned to their home country.

The PNG authorities have also arranged for PNG’s Divine Word University to provide educational and welfare services at ELRTC, supplementing and maybe even supplanting Transfield’s service contracts in the process.

Messages have been sent telling the transferees that DWU will be offering a “better service”.

Guardian Australia has been told those who have been given a “negative” refugee status will be transferred to the new facility at Port Moresby. From there they will be repatriated to their home country or, if stateless, kept there.

Guards from Wilson Security have been working in Port Moresby to implement this policy.

PNG immigration has told those with a negative assessment they may be held at “any location, including correctional institutions, while your removal is being effected”.

It added: “You must depart PNG as soon as practicable … You do not have the option of going to Australia. You will never go to Australia … You have the right to communicate with a lawyer of your choice. Lawyers must hold a PHN practising certificate in order to practice here. If the lawyer charges a fee, this must be paid by you.”

Those with refugee status who are refusing to comply or failing to attend their final status meeting will also be sent to the facility at Port Moresby. It is understood conditions at the Port Moresby centre will prove to be sufficiently intolerable that those held there will have an incentive to “give-up” and return to their home country.

Refugees cannot be forcibly repatriated, but in this way PNG authorities and their Australian sponsors hope to avoid the accusation of breaching the principle of non-refoulement under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Convention Against Torture. Australia is a contracting state to the the refugee convention and its protocol.

As at 31 July, there are a total of 942 people detained at MIRPC, and of the 677 refugee status initial assessment notifications at Manus, 394 were positive and 282 were negative, ie. nearly 60% of those assessed were found to be refugees, compared with a comparable figure on Nauru of 83%.

Meanwhile, a well placed informant at the MIRPC said the physical and mental health of transferees is rapidly deteriorating.

“A large number of men are now receiving daily doses of strong psychiatric medicine and are increasingly showing symptoms of mental illness including depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, self-harm and suicide attempts.

“The men on psychiatric medicine have blue cards and go daily to IHMS where they are given medicine in unmarked cups which they take in front of the staff. Most men have no idea what they are taking and some have complained that they are experiencing side effects and are addicted.”

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection in Australia denies non-compliance among transferees is rising. Even so, inmates are powerless against reprisals, they dare not make official reports about what is happening to them, while staff are reluctant to report the misbehaviour of other sub-contractors or employees because of intimidation or bullying.

The new Manus Island management contract has not been formally concluded, but Transfield Services seems confident it is the successful tenderer. Already, a Transfield Services “optimisation group” has been on the island, touring the MIRPC plus the transit centre, looking for savings that can be made under the new contract.

Rosters already have been reorganised so welfare case managers and others make rotations every three weeks rather than two weeks. In other words, it’s now three weeks on, three weeks off – the same as guards from Wilson Security. This saves on the number of charter flights to and from Australia.

Transfield workers are also expected to agree to and sign a “media policy”: there can be no show of sympathy or support for causes opposed to offshore processing. This has been interpreted even to mean that a welfare officer, or any other staffer, could not “like” a refugee on Facebook.

A spokesperson for DIBP told Guardian Australia in response to a series of questions: “The government of Papua New Guinea is responsible for the refugee determination process, for the management of those determined to be refugees and for the arrangements at the East Lorengau refugee transit centre.”

The spokesman added that at the ELRTC there is “access to support services”, but people who have refugee status “are free to return to their country of origin”.

Australia funds the entire processing and transit operations on PNG and pays for the service providers, such as Transfield Services and Wilson Security.

Transfield Services had no comment in response to our questions.

Source: The Guardian

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