Forum hears about Manus riots

A refugee forum has heard first-hand from recent observers that conditions at the Manus Island detention centre are making some of the 1200 asylum seekers mentally ill. 

Panel discussion and public question and answer session, facilitated by Australian Lawyers for Human Rights,  on Manus Island riots, held in Sydney on 27 May 2014.

Vice-President Roslyn Cook asked the panel a series of prepared  questions followed by questions from the audience.  These included conditions in the detention centre and progress in the inquiry set up by human rights lawyer and Papua New Guinea judge, Justice David Cannings.

Panel members were, Amnesty International’s Pacific Researcher Kate Schuetze, Human Rights Law Centre’s Director of Legal Advocacy Daniel Webb, lawyer Ben Kiely of King & Wood Mallesons, who is providing pro bono assistance to Amnesty and HRLC,  and journalist and former AAP correspondent to PNG Eoin Blackwell.

Blackwell inspected Manus detention centre as part of the National Court’s inquiry.

Refugees emailed a photo of a battered man after the riots.
Refugees emailed a photo of a battered man after the riots.

Manus Island detention centre has been operating since 2012. There are about 1200 men currently detained. Webb said that no asylum seeker has been processed to this date.

Men are languishing in huge numbers and, in his opinion, the Australian government hopes they will give up and go back to their own countries.

It is unlikely that asylum seekers want to resettle in PNG even if they were welcome.  The country has a limited capacity to resettle people, as 99% of the land is community-owned.

Blackwell described life in Manus as ‘ramshackle’.  He showed photos of the compounds housing about 120 people in each dormitory.

Most were crowded with bunk beds almost side by side.  Some slept on the floor between the bunk beds. Windows showing a view of the sea have been blocked off.

Schuetze has made two visits to the detention centre. On the second, she noticed the mental health situation had worsened.  There is no full time psychiatrist, only a visiting one.

There are no meaningful activities for asylum seekers.

The United Nations describes the centre as falling short of international standards.

Above all, the detained people are out of reach of the Australia justice system. It is not like Australia where asylum seekers have access, even if limited, to legal assistance. In Manus there are no available lawyers to take any cases to court.

Frustration with no information on having claims processed and despair led to  the riots of February 2014. An Iranian man, Reza Barati, was bashed to his death. Many  were beaten up – 350 out of 400 in one area. Altercations broke out between asylum seekers inside and people outside the detention centre fence.

Progress on the PNG National Court Case

In PNG, a judge has the right to initiate an inquiry if he/she thinks an issue justifies it…which is what Mr Justice Cannings did. The PNG  National Court case is to assess the lawfulness of the Manus Island detention centre, in particular:

  1. The legality of detention under the Migration Act of PNG.
  2. Assuming the Migration Act is legal, is it Constitutional?
  3. The actual conditions of the detention centre. Do they meet minimum standards of treatment?

The inquiry operated for three weeks until the PNG government shut it down. They  challenged Justice Cannings’ ability to head it on the basis of bias.  Should the judge ‘recuse himself’  – another court is to decide this question.  The PNG Opposition has also brought a case questioning the legality of Manus.

(The Canberra Times of 28 May 2014 reported that the Australian government had given the PNG government funds to fight both cases!)

Schuetze emphasised asylum seekers’ rights need to be defended in PNG. Webb noted that the temporary presence of journalists, Amnesty and human rights lawyers assisting the inquiry provided at least more  perspective  about what is going on. Like many, he sees the boats as a symptom of the problem rather than a cause. Reports indicate that asylum seekers are trying to get to New Zealand by boat, to avoid the current situation on making first contact with Australia. A regional approach is needed to address this enormous problem.

Questions were asked about how we can change the current social perception of asylum seekers amongst the public. Suggestions included:

  • Language: For example, challenge the perception of them as queue jumpers and economic refugees.
  • ‘Sovereign borders’ – military terms.
  • Media exposure of conditions, lack of legal access and slowness in processing claims.
  • Emphasise that stopping the boats does not stop the cause of the desire to migrate.
  • Work with like-minded politicians.  There are some in all parties who do not like offshore processing.
  • Education, education, education.

– notes of CLA member Diana Simmons

The  session was recorded.  For broadcast  details  contact the Human Rights Law Centre in Sydney.Email:

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