12 Dec 2013

Damning report on Australia's offshore asylum seeker centre

5:25 pm on 12 December 2013

Amnesty International says the slow processing of asylum seekers on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island seems deliberately designed to pressure detainees to return to countries from where they have fled.

The New Zealand and Australian branches of Amnesty have jointly released a report based on a visit to Australia's offshore Regional Processing Centre last month.

One of the researchers who visited Manus, Kate Schuetze says they conducted one-on-one interviews with 58 asylum seekers and spoke to several more during walks around the compound.

She told Bridget Tunnicliffe the conditions they are being held in are inhumane.

KATE SCHUETZE: Most of the people we spoke to had a sense that tey were being punished and they don't understand why they've been locked up. One of the major considerations is they don't understand why they've been locked up. One of the major considerations is there's a huge amount of uncertainty there. People aren't being told what's going to happen beyond initial interviews for their asylum claims to be assessed. There's no time-bound requirement under Papua New Guinea law for those claims to be assessed, so essentially those people have been left in limbo.

BRIDGE TUNNICLIFFE: So I understand not a single claim has been fully processed yet, no decisions have been made. Do you think Papua New Guinea is just not equipped to deal with this?

KS: Certainly they haven't had the experience of going through a refugee processing system previously. We're talking people coming from countries where they've experienced really quite serious torture and trauma, so that also requires a high level of skill in terms of adequately assessing these claims, because you don't want to send people back to countries where their lives might be at risk, and that's what's at stake here if a bad decision is made. Whilst we were there it seemed like there were many more Australian immigration officials than Papua New Guinea ones and they are working to train and mentor their counterparts, but even they admitted that there's not enough staff there at the moment. There's not enough people adequately trained in the process to try and speed up that process. So even Australian immigration officials weren't clear on what happens next in the process other than making a recommendation to the minister for immigration. And it's not clear, as well, what rights asylum seekers have here to access lawyers. It's not clear what process they have for judicial review. There are a lot of question marks around this issue of processing, which is why we call it a detention centre in our report. It's not about processing. It's about locking these people up, it's about punishment. And there is this strong sense of 'Why are we punishing these people? We're punishing the victims another time over'.

BT: Do you see this as essentially an Australian-run facility based on Papua New Guinea soil? Does Australia ultimately have to take responsibility for this?

KS: At every level of the operation of the camp it seems like the Australian government is making the decisions and they're in actual control of the facilities - the running of the camp, the running of the processing system. Under their agreements with the Papua New Guinea government they've agreed to meet the cost of what's happening over there. So there is a really strong element of control, and particularly when you talk about certain international laws and standards, if you can establish that level of control, it's not sufficient for Australia to now pass the buck and say it's a Papua New Guinean run facility, because that's not the reality on the ground as much as they might like to say that. They still have responsibilities to those people, and we're calling on them to meet those responsibilities.

Kate Schuetze says the report recommends the Australian government shutdown Manus, and calls on the PNG government to ensure asylum seekers are not arbitrarily detained.