It's been two days since the Papua New Guinean Supreme Court ruled that asylum seekers are being illegally detained on Manus Island. We're still no closer to knowing what that means for the 850 or so men still being held there.
The ruling focused on the breach of Section 42 of PNG's constitution, which deals with guaranteed liberty. Basically, as these men haven't committed any crime in PNG, it was deemed unconstitutional to keep them detained at all, let alone indefinitely. The court ordered both the PNG and Australian governments to "take all steps necessary to cease and prevent the continued detention of asylum seekers" at the Australian-administered Manus Island Refugee Processing Centre.
Back in mid-2015, when the Australian Government was facing a similar challenge in the High Court over the detention of people in Nauru, the Nauruan Government quickly made that detention centre "open door," allowing asylum seekers to come and go as they pleased.
While such an arrangement would effectively remove the detention element that was at the centre of this week's ruling in PNG, the Guardian reports it is unlikely to happen on Manus Island as the centre is located on a naval base, i.e. not the kind of place you can just let people walk around.
It seems inevitable then that the Manus Island Refugee Processing Centre will be closed. However, no one really seems to know what this will mean for the men being held there. Especially not the men themselves.
Mahmoud, a detainee on Manus, told VICE the uncertainty was making people tense. "Everyone is asking, 'So what will happen now?'," he said. "Guys are nervous and do not know what is going to happen."
Mahmoud says that when PNG immigration representatives officially informed his compound of the ruling yesterday the men there broke out in whistling and clapping, as well as chanting "we don't want PNG." The immigration officials added that they were yet to receive any official orders from the court or government but would announce what would happen soon.
Many of the men have made it clear though that they want nothing further to do with PNG. In late March 2016, 76 men who'd been granted refugee status, only to be told they'd be resettled in the PNG, wrote an open letter pleading that they not be forced to do so.
Mahmoud—who wrote the letter—told VICE at the time that the signatories were "absolutely terrified" of being settled in PNG. "Everyone see poverty, loneliness and death out there in PNG," he said. "PNG is a terrible nightmare."
It's not immediately clear whether Mahmoud and his fellow refugees will have to stay. PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill yesterday released a statement saying no one would be forced to resettle in the country:
"For those that have been deemed to be legitimate refugees, we invite them to live in Papua New Guinea only if they want to be a part of our society and make a contribution to our community," he said. "It is clear that several of these refugees do not want to settle in Papua New Guinea and that is their decision."
Last night, Australian Human Rights Commission president Professor Gillian Triggs, called on the government to return all 850 men currently held on Manus to Australia.
It seems unlikely though that the Turnbull Government will budge from its hardline stance.
Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, along with other government frontbenchers, has been adamant that Australia will not be taking any of the detainees, regardless of refugee status. He told ABC radio yesterday morning that they would work with PNG to return these people to their "country of origin or a third country".
"But we've been very clear, and I repeat it again today, that these people will not be coming to Australia," he said. He added negotiations were underway "with a number of countries" that might take the 400-odd men who had been granted refugee status. Indonesia, Malaysia, Nauru and other regional countries had all be a part of "cordial discussions", he said.
For his part, Mahmoud says their long detainment has left him and others on Manus Island indifferent to their fates. Given the choice of where he would like to end up, he refused to entertain the idea that he had any choice at all.
"Well it's not us to decide what we will do. Right now we are hostages of Australia and Mr Potato Head [Peter Dutton] is the person who will decide where is the next location to ship us," he said. "I think I am a walking dead, therefore [it] does not matter. I do not know if I can recover from what the Australian Government has done to me."
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