06/02/2018 3:33 PM AEDT

Manus Asylum Seekers: Choose Life In Jail Or Risk Death, Torture In Home Countries

“It’s essentially putting people who need protection into limbo or detention forever.”

Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship via Getty Images
The former Manus Island center, in a photo from 2012, has been closed, but the fate of those who are seeking asylum remains in limbo because they haven't been officially declared refugees.

Asylum seekers in Australia’s offshore detention camp in the Papua New Guinean province of Manus Island have been given a grim choice: Remain in a Papua New Guinea jail forever or return to their home countries to face arbitrary detention, torture or death.

Australia’s hard-line policy of mandatory detention for unauthorized boat arrivals saw thousands of men, women and children who were seeking asylum shunted to offshore processing facilities on Manus Island and the Pacific island nation of Nauru in recent years. The Papua New Guinea (PNG) Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the arrangement breached the country’s constitution and ordered the detention center to close. In 2017 the Australian government agreed to pay $70 million in compensation to about 1,900 asylum seekers detained on Manus over the years but simply moved the detainees ― all men ― to new facilities after the old center was shut down.

Although those deemed to be legitimate refugees are allowed to settle in the PNG community as normal residents, those found to not be refugees are held in a separate, newly built facility called Hillside House and have been pressured to return to their home countries, which include Iran, Somalia and Sudan. Most of the men on Manus have been found to be legitimate refugees by agencies including the United Nations, but some have had their claims for refugee status rejected.

Many of the would-be refugees have been deported or returned home already, after being tempted by $20,000 (about $16,000 U.S.) packages from the Australian government. 

Last week, a number of Hillside House residents received a grim letter from the PNG Immigration and Citizenship Service Authority, saying that the government wants to deport them but that a pre-deportation assessment found these asylum seekers would face mortal danger if they returned to their home countries.

“This included an assessment of whether there is a real risk that you will be subjected to torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, arbitrary deprivation of life or the imposition of the death penalty,” the letter obtained by HuffPost stated.

“The assessment found that there is a real risk of one or more of these events and therefore the Government of Papua New Guinea will not remove you to your home country.”

The letter said that, despite this, “you do not have a right to remain in Papua New Guinea and your removal and detention orders remain in effect.” 

The letter distributed to asylum seekers on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

“It’s essentially putting people who need protection into limbo or detention forever,” Natasha Blucher, detention advocacy manager at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. “The men detained in Hillside have limited rights to movement. There is no solution. The men who received these letters are at their wits’ end. Where can they go?”

Blucher said many of the men would be persecuted and targeted if they returned home.

“It has been acknowledged they’d face torture and death if they go home. They can’t stay in PNG. They’re not allowed to go to Australia. This has heaped a lot of distress onto people. It’s dangerous when you take already hopeless people and tell them there’s no solution in the foreseeable future,” she said.

“It’s something Australia could have absolutely foreseen yet failed to plan. It’s another example showing this entire system is a disaster.”

The Australian government says it no longer bears any responsibility for the asylum seekers, despite the asylum boats having been on a course for Australia and having been detained in Australian waters. The Department of Home Affairs, which has jurisdiction over immigration, issued a one-line response to HuffPost: “This is a matter for the PNG Government.”

Dr. Maria O’Sullivan, senior lecturer at Monash University’s law school and deputy director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, told HuffPost that, although fear of torture or death was not in itself a basis to claim refugee status, most developed nations offered protection for non-refugees with such fears.

“Many countries are party to the United Nations Convention Against Torture or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which means they can’t return someone to torture. The thorny issue is that Nauru and PNG are developing countries that have only recently relatively signed up to these conventions,” she said.

“PNG can’t send them back, but they don’t have to give them a status that allows them to stay. When you’re recognized as a refugee, you’re allowed certain rights to education, work, social security and more. It’s a big issue in refugee law worldwide, you won’t get sent back but you don’t have any status.”

O’Sullivan claimed the PNG government was attempting to encourage the non-refugees to go back to their home countries, regardless of the potential danger.

“The policy wants them to voluntarily return home. The government is giving them one choice, staying in PNG in this uncertain status,” she said.

“You could argue it is in itself a breach of human rights to not give someone permanent status.”

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