Australia and Papua New Guinea have confirmed that the Manus Island detention centre will be closed, but offered no detail on the future of the 854 men held there – except that Australia remains adamant it would accept none of the detainees for resettlement.
PNG’s prime minister, Peter O’Neill, and Australia’s immigration minister, Peter Dutton, met in Port Moresby on Wednesday.
O’Neill released a statement following the meeting saying that officials from both countries were making progress on how to close the centre.
“Both Papua New Guinea and Australia are in agreement that the centre is to be closed,” O’Neill said, but offered no time frame on the closure, only stating that the process should not be rushed.
“A series of options are being advanced and implemented. This must take into account the interests of the people of Papua New Guinea and the wellbeing of asylum seekers and refugees.”
Dutton confirmed later on Wednesday that he had discussions with O’Neill on the closure of Manus. Dutton also failed to give any indication as to where those held on Manus would go, but said none of the refugees would ever be settled in Australia.
“It has been the longstanding position of this government to work with PNG to close Manus and support those people as they transition into PNG or return to their country of origin,” Dutton said.
“Our position, confirmed again today with PNG, is that no one from Manus Island regional processing centre will ever be settled in Australia.
“In addition to the removal of all children from detention and the closure of 17 detention centres, this is a further dividend of the Coalition’s strong and consistent border protection policies.”
Labor’s immigration spokesman, Shayne Neumann, said it was extraordinary that Australians were learning about the possible closure of Manus from the PNG prime minister rather than the Australian minister.
“This is yet again an example of the lack of transparency and accountability and openness of this government to offshore detention and processing,” Neumann said.
“The Australian public have a right to know in circumstances where about $1.2bn of taxpayers money is going to offshore processing, what is actually happening.
“Surely the minister should be consulting the opposition and trying to get a bipartisan approach in this space.”
Neuwmann called on the minister to inform Australians where the asylum seekers would be sent and what arrangements would be made for health, education and other needs.
“Tell the Australian public what is happening,” Neumann said.
Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, who has been found to be a refugee, but held in the detention centre for more than three years, told the Guardian that the men on Manus were wary of “good news”
“Yes, they [the men] are surprised, but it’s hard for them that believe in this news. Some of them told me that this news is like other positive news that we heard.”
Boochani said O’Neill’s statement gave the refugees and asylum seekers held on Manus no detail on their futures.
“They did not mention that when they will close this hell prison. We want to know when exactly we will get freedom and where we will go. This is our right that know about our future.
“People are scared to that show they are happy. I remember that PNG supreme court made decision on April and these people were scared to show their happiness, and they are like that time now.”
The future of the Manus detention has been in doubt since the PNG supreme court ruled in April that the detention centre was “illegal and unconstitutional”.
Following that decision, superficial changes were made to the detention regimen, but the men remain detained still, they live in the same compounds, behind steel fences, and are not free to leave if and when they choose, only on a bus run by the detention centre operators.
A second court challenge to the detention regime – arguing that the detention centre breaches PNG’s constitutional guarantee to liberty – is set to go before the bench of the same court next week, and a judgement is expected quickly.
O’Neill said yesterday he would uphold the initial court ruling.
“The supreme court has delivered its ruling and our government is complying with this decision. I look forward to further updates as the process of closing the centre moves forward.”
Even before the court ruling, O’Neill has wanted to close the detention centre. Visiting Australia in March, he said the Manus detention centre was “a problem” that had “done a lot of damage” and that his country did not have the resources to resettle all the refugees held there.
Australia’s entire offshore regime has been under unprecedented pressure since the publication of the Nauru Files by the Guardian last week.
The publication the files – more than 2,000 leaked incident reports detailing systemic physical and sexual abuses, humiliating treatment and harsh conditions, and widespread self-harm and suicide attempts – has refocused public attention on conditions in detention, sparked calls for a royal commission, and led Labor and the Greens to promise a new Senate inquiry into offshore detention.
The Manus Island detention centre has had a troubled existence since being reopened in 2012.
In 2014 three days of unrest and an invasion of the detention centre by PNG police and others saw more than 60 asylum seekers seriously injured. One man was shot, another had his throat slit and 23-year-old Reza Barati was murdered by guards who beat him with a nail studded piece of wood, and kicked and dropped a rock on his head.
PNG’s supreme court heard up to 15 expatriate and local guards killed Barati. Two local men were convicted of his murder this year.
The detention centre has also been plagued by consistent allegations of abuse and privation. Rape, physical and sexual assault and drug abuse are common, the centre’s water supply has failed, and detainees are fed expired food. Suicide attempts and acts of self-harm are common, and some men have alleged they have been beaten and tortured in solitary confinement.
It is current Australian government policy that all asylum seekers who arrive by boat are mandatorily detained offshore, and that none will ever be settled in Australia.
Human Rights Watch Australia director Elaine Pearson said the move to close the Manus detention centre was welcome but “long overdue”.
“These men should immediately be moved to Australia or a safe third country, not simply shunted down the road to a transit centre or moved to Nauru or Cambodia. Nearly a thousand men on Manus have already lost three or more years of their lives locked up in limbo for no good reason. They’ve endured dirty, cramped conditions, inadequate medical care and violence. Finally, it is time to let them move on with their lives in safety and dignity.”
Spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition Ian Rintoul said he was concerned the PNG and Australian governments were seeking to pre-empt the upcoming supreme court hearing, by suggesting the centre was slated for imminent closure.
“At Monday’s hearing, lawyers for the Manus asylum seekers and refugees will be seeking orders for the unconditional release of all detainee and the return of all of them to Australia. Anything less than the unconditional release and return to Australia will be a denial of justice.”
He said the men should be brought to Australia.
“It is sheer bloody-mindedness by the Australian government that has kept these people in detention.”
Efforts to resettle refugees in PNG have foundered. Barely a handful have been resettled outside the centre and almost all have been forced to return to detention after being assaulted, robbed, and in one case, left homeless in other parts of the country.