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Speech: Appalling Conditions for Asylum Seekers at Manus Island

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (19:25): 'After two years, Australia's experiment in offshore detention has been a disaster. Even the few people provided refugee status have been denied freedom of movement and the right to work. All should be allowed to move on with their lives in dignity and security.' That is a comment from Elaine Pearson. Elaine Pearson recently visited Manus Island in her capacity as the Australian director of Human Rights Watch. She visited Manus Island with Daniel Webb from the Human Rights Law Centre.

More than 850 asylum seekers and 87 refugees are detained indefinitely in poor conditions on Manus Island, two years after Australia announced it would process and resettle boat people-as the government continues to call them-in New Guinea. The PNG authorities granted Ms Pearson and Mr Webb access to the transit centre but not the detention centre, where most of the men are. The main concern that they identified was that the absence of a PNG resettlement policy means refugee men have not been able to move on with their lives. After almost two years on Manus they remain in limbo, they reported, unable to leave the island or work. Such a prolonged period in limbo is affecting their mental health and some men appear to suffer from depression and anxiety-clearly that is not surprising.

They also said that they were very concerned about the lengthy processing times because this means far too many refugees remain in detention. They have been determined that they are refugees but they are still in detention. Some vulnerable men, including some gay men, are in detention and they have faced abuses from other detainees without proper protection.

Detaining asylum seekers for any amount of time in criminal justice institutions is clearly inappropriate. It is 2015 and you would have hoped that we would have learnt from past mistakes. Yet what was found from this investigation was that in January this year up to 60 asylum seekers were held without charge in a single cell for several weeks. In this time, two of the people held in these appalling conditions attempted to commit suicide. PNG immigration officials allegedly beat one refugee. Those charged with the assault included the camp manager. However, he continued to work at the centre. Obviously this is very distressing for the refugees.

The Australian government should stop sending asylum seekers to PNG. Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Law Centre have both called for this to occur and for both the Australian on the PNG governments to treat asylum seekers in accordance with international standards and implement a refugee resettlement policy. Our two governments at the moment detain asylum seekers, all adult men, in the overcrowded conditions at a facility on Manus Island's Lombrum Naval Base. Humans rights organisations and media have no regular access to these facilities. Again, why the secrecy? Why the lack of transparency? It certainly adds to people's concern that the abuses continue.

Two asylum seekers sent to Manus Island have died, one after being allegedly beaten to death by contract staff at the detention centre and another from septicaemia after cutting his foot. Daniel Webb, the director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, who is one of the people who visited Manus, has said:

People found to be refugees deserve a real solution-not a transfer to a facility down the road where they remain in limbo.

Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Law Centre have summarised their concerns following their visit. These include pressure on asylum seekers to return to home countries, lengthy delays in refugee processing, mental health problems linked to prolonged and indefinite detention, arbitrary detention of asylum seekers and refugees in the police lockup and prison, restrictions on refugees' freedom of movement and work rights, assault of a refugee by alleged authorities in Lorengau town, and mistreatment of gay asylum seekers by other detainees. Yes, this is happening in PNG and the PNG government has some level of involvement, but the main responsibility rests with the Australian government. The fact that the Abbott government failed to, and has refused to, honour its treaty obligations and has forced these people onto PNG brings hardship, misery and suffering to those individuals as well as more pressure on PNG-a low-income country that we were the former coloniser of and continue to abuse.

These two organisations have made two significant recommendations: (1) that Australia should cease all further transfers to Manus Island and (2) that Australia should press PNG authorities to immediately adopt and implement a comprehensive local integration policy for refugees and to provide all recognised refugees in PNG with ordinary residency, freedom of movement, employment authorisation and other common identity documents.


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