Australia’s most infamous offshore processing centre was quietly emptied this week, with just nine asylum seekers and refugees reportedly left in the Manus Island detention camp as of yesterday. Daily transfers have seen more than 60 detainees being flown by chartered plane from Manus to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, according to SBS.
Papua New Guinea's Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Petrus Thomas, told AFP that a mere nine migrants remained on Manus: five of whom have built families there, and one of whom is embroiled in ongoing local legal proceedings. "The rest have been flown to Port Moresby," he said. Among those transferred is award-winning author and outspoken refugee advocate Behrouz Boochani, who was detained in the processing centre for almost six years.
It’s understood that the refugees are currently being kept in hotels while accommodation facilities are prepared, The Saturday Paper reports. Of those who are deemed non-refugees, 53 have been put in a detention centre in Port Moresby.
The transfers are a major development in the new Papua New Guinean government’s commitment to end offshore processing on Manus, and have been celebrated by that government as a "positive and significant step" in ending regional processing. Some people, however, have expressed concerns that those individuals now detained in Port Moresby are being denied contact with the outside world. Others, such as the Refugee Action Coalition, have accused the Australian and Papua New Guinean governments of merely “shifting the detention deckchairs.”
These latter concerns were echoed by the Governor of Manus, Charlie Benjamin, who noted that "shifting them from Manus to Port Moresby, to me is just like—you're just shifting the problem from one province to another," the ABC reports.
There has been mounting pressure over the past few months for the Manus Island processing centre to be closed, after a spate of incidents of self-harm and attempted suicide among detainees. As of June 26, there had reportedly been more than 90 attempted suicides and more than 62 incidents of self-harm since the Australian election on May 18th—a period of less than six weeks—according to Sri Lankan refugee Shamindan Kanapathi. It’s thought that the surge in incidents was a result of people losing hope of resettlement following the government’s reelection—with many of the belief that they faced another three years in detention under the incumbent Liberal-National Coalition.
Speaking to the ABC after his transfer to Port Moresby, Shamindan said his "life is still in limbo".
"I came to Manus not knowing my future and today I leave Manus, not knowing my future," he said.
Immigration Minister Thomas insisted in a statement that going to Port Moresby would allow the men to move on with their lives. "They will be supported to either await their resettlement to the United States or supported to make the personal decisions regarding their future," he said.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said it “remains deeply troubled that after more than six years, no concrete solutions are currently available aside from those accepted within the framework of the United States relocation.”
“Australia remains responsible for those it has transferred to Papua New Guinea and Nauru," it declared in a statement. The Australian Department of Home Affairs meanwhile said that "Australia will continue to support PNG's efforts to resolve the regional processing caseload through resettlement, returns, and removals".
The Manus Regional Processing Centre was opened by the Australian government on Manus Island in 2001 as part of the so-called "Pacific Solution": a policy of transporting asylum seekers to detention centres in the Pacific rather than letting them come ashore on the Australian mainland. It was reopened for processing in 2012 and has been the subject of intense controversy over the past few years, with the UN and various human rights organisations condemning the Australian government for their treatment of refugees and their hardline border control policies
Katie Robertson, legal director at the Human Rights Law Centre, described the recent spate of suicides and self-harm incidents as an "unprecedented medical crisis"—further noting that it was solely Australia's responsibility to deal with.
"What we are seeing is the result of six long years of an extremely punitive and cruel policy in which the Australian Government has deliberately and consistently denied refugees essential and critical medical care," she said. "The Australian Government has, and has always had, the power—and indeed the legal obligation—to transfer refugees in its care to Australia for critical medical treatment."