The Australian government agreed to pay more than $53 million Wednesday to settle a class action lawsuit from asylum seekers over their treatment at an immigration camp on a remote island in Papua New Guinea, reigniting calls for Australia to shutter its controversial and “cruel” offshore detention policy for refugees.
The record Australian human rights settlement was announced on the first day of the class action suit taken against the Australian government and contractors G4S and Broadspectrum, who run the immigration camp on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. The suit was taken on behalf of 1,905 refugees and asylum seekers seeking damages for alleged physical and psychological injuries they say they suffered in the camp.
The plaintiffs, more than 800 of whom are still on Manus, were sent to the island as a result of a controversial policy under which Australia’s government — which refuses to accept asylum seekers who arrive by boat — pays the poor Pacific nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru to house them.
“Cruel, inhuman and degrading”
Claims of psychological trauma, inadequate medical care, and violence have been a regular feature inside the camps since they reopened in 2012. Three people have died since 2012— one during a riot protesting conditions, and two from medical complications.
The UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau, said this week that the Australian policy amounted to unlawful and unjustifiably punitive treatment that was “cruel, inhuman and degrading” to asylum seekers.
“Are you going to leave these people as a perpetual human sacrifice just to prove how tough your border policies are?”
But Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton was unapologetic and said the settlement had been made to spare taxpayers the expense of a court case that had been anticipated to last at least six months. Dutton strongly refuted the plaintiffs’ claims of abuse, and said the payout was not an admission of liability.
Human Rights Watch’s Australia director Elaine Pearson told VICE News that the settlement was an “important vindication” for people who had suffered abuse at the facility, and highlighted the need to close the centers and bring the approximately 2,000 people still held on Manus and Nauru to humane conditions in Australia.
“The reality is that all of these abuses documented in the court case are still going on in Manus and Nauru right now,” she said, adding that the settlement could pave the way for other claims from asylum seekers.
“The government should take a long hard look. If it wants to avoid paying more compensation claims, the smart thing to do would be bring people to safety.”
Senator Nick McKim, immigration spokesman for the Greens, echoed that call. “There is a simple solution — close the camps on Manus Island and Nauru, and bring every man, woman and child to Australia.”
The future for the 800 Middle Eastern, African and Asian men housed at Manus — about 700 of whom have been granted refugee status — remains unclear. Australia plans to close the Manus facility by the end of October, and says the men will be Papua New Guinea’s responsibility once that happens.
Australia hopes that many of those on Manus and Nauru will be taken in by the United States, under a resettlement deal struck in the late days of the Obama administration. But the deal, said to cover the resettlement of 1,250 refugees – contingent on them passing “extreme vetting” – and it’s likely that the women and children on Nauru will be prioritized as more vulnerable, potentially leaving hundreds of men on Manus in limbo.
According to reports, refugees on Manus are being told they can relocate to accommodation or a refugee transit center elsewhere in Papua New Guinea, or return home voluntarily with an assistance payment, or to any third country they may have the right to reside in. Australia is offering up to $20,000 payments to entice refugees and asylum seekers to return home, but says the assistance will no longer be offered after August.
Asylum seekers who haven’t been recognized as refugees are being told they can either return home with assistance, or be removed forcibly.
Despite the criticism of its offshore processing policy, Australia’s government remains steadfast that nobody in the centers will make their way to Australian shores.
“That’s unfortunately the situation we’re in,” said Pearson. “The government’s said that so many times, that any weakening of that position will be exploited as being soft on border controls. The reality is: Are you going to leave these people as a perpetual human sacrifice just to prove how tough your border policies are?”