The Australian-funded regional processing centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG), is due to close next week on 31 October. This will bring to an end, after five years, the Australian Government practice of offshore processing of asylum seekers on Manus Island (the processing centre on Nauru remains open however). With less than a week until its closure, over 600 men remain in the processing centre. Most of these have been found to be refugees (141 have been found not to be refugees). Their options , according to Australian officials, are to resettle in PNG, transfer to Nauru and hope for resettlement in the USA, or return to the country from which they fled.
The closure of the centre was announced by PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill in April 2016 following a ruling by the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea that the processing centre was unconstitutional, although no closure date was announced at this time. Prime Minister O’Neill stated at that time that PNG would ‘immediately ask the Australian Government to make alternative arrangements for the asylum seekers currently held at the Regional Processing Centre … we did not anticipate the asylum seekers to be kept as long as they have at the Manus Centre’.
The closure date of 31 October 2017 was revealed in April 2017. Residents at the processing centre were told that it would be progressively shut down over the next several months, and that they should ‘consider their options’. People who had been found to be refugees were advised that they should move into the community or to the refugee transit centre in East Lorengau, while those who had been found not to be refugees were advised that they should make arrangements to leave PNG. Efforts to encourage people to leave the processing centre have ramped up as the 31 October deadline approaches, with reports that essential services such as water, power and food will be entirely cut off on that date. The Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Michael Pezullo, has stated that the Manus Centre will return to being a PNG naval establishment as of 1 November 2017, and that if anyone remains in the centre on that date he has ‘no idea’ what PNG intends to do with them.
Offshore processing on Manus Island
Offshore processing of asylum seekers who had arrived in Australia irregularly by sea, which had been the cornerstone of asylum policy under the Howard Government, recommenced in 2012. The current arrangement with PNG, under which asylum seekers were to be both processed and resettled in PNG, began in July 2013 when a Regional Resettlement Arrangement was announced by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
According to a response to a question asked at a Senate Estimates hearing in February 2017, between 19 July 2013 and 27 February 2017 a total of 1,523 people were transferred to the Manus Island RPC. The three largest citizenship groups were Iran (675 people), Afghanistan (138 people) and Iraq (122 people). Refugee status determination for asylum seekers transferred to Manus Island is the responsibility of the PNG Government. As at 30 September 2017, 1025 initial refugee status assessment notifications had been made by PNG officials, but many of these cases had yet to be finally determined by the PNG Minister for Foreign Affairs and Citizenship. Following final determination, 730 people in the Manus Island processing centre had been found to be refugees, while 253 had been found not to be refugees.
Resettlement of refugees in PNG did not begin until late in 2015, after PNG finalised its refugee resettlement policy in June 2015. Those who are found to be refugees and offered resettlement in PNG are moved from the Manus Island processing centre to a purpose-built transit centre in Lorengau township on Manus Island. They must undertake an ‘acculturation’ course, and are then offered case management services to assist them in finding work and housing. They are expected to eventually leave Manus Island and move to large towns, such as the capital Port Moresby. Refugees are permitted to apply for citizenship after eight years, and may apply to bring their families to join them in PNG. Many are reportedly afraid to resettle in the PNG community or move to the transit accommodation in Lorengau. Lorengau locals are also reportedly unhappy about the planned relocation of the men into the town, sparking concern about rising tensions between locals and refugees. As a result, the resettlement process has been slow, with only 35 people resettled in the PNG community so far, according to information provided by the Immigration Department to Senate Estimates earlier this week.
For those who have been found to be refugees but are reluctant to resettle in PNG, options are extremely limited. The Australian Government remains firm in its resolve that no refugees from Manus Island (or Nauru) will be resettled in Australia. A small number (25 so far) have been resettled in the United States, under an arrangement agreed between Australia and the Obama administration in 2016. More resettlement places are potentially available in the US, and earlier this month refugees in the Manus Island centre who are hoping to be resettled in the US were given the option of transferring to Nauru while they wait. According to DIBP’s testimony as Senate Estimates this week, only two refugees have expressed interest in doing so.
Those who have been found not to be refugees are being offered alternative supported accommodation in Lorengau, but the PNG Government expects them to eventually make arrangements to return home. Those who choose to return home voluntarily are offered financial assistance to do so, while PNG has indicated that those who do not voluntarily depart PNG will be subject to deportation.
With less than a week before the centre is scheduled to be closed, some 600 men still remain inside.
Earlier this month the UNHCR Regional Representative to Australia, Thomas Albrecht, criticised Australia’s offshore processing regime, and called on the Australian Government to take responsibility for the men remaining on Manus Island after the RPC closes. However the Australian Government has given no indication that it will consider changing its current policy.