Australia pledged an extra $450 million in sweeteners to Papua New Guinea (PNG) to settle refugees – but most of the money is yet to be spent and could now disappear with the PNG’s supreme court decision that the Manus Island detention centre has to close. The deal with PNG was known as a "joint understanding" with Australia. The inducements Australia offered in 2013 included an expansive new hospital, roadworks, and upgrades to the PNG university and law courts buildings.
"Most funding under the [Manus Island] agreement has not been spent," said Australian National University aid expert Stephen Howes. "The PNG government will still claim that funding. They delivered three years of the detention centre, not expecting the asylum seekers to remain so long." In the three years after Australia started sending asylum seekers off shore, not a single one had been resettled.
PNG politicians are now blaming Australia for failing to live up to its end of the Manus Island bargain, with most of the proposed building projects stemming from the refugee deal only in the planning stage and far from completed. In one case, Australia had agreed to $8.5 million in "design work" for the Madang - Ramu highway on the PNG east coast, but the local transport minister this month said Australia had failed to lay asphalt on the rugged 195 kilometre highway, which is crumbling under land slips.
There is still no timeframe for the centre's closure, and PNG Immigration authorities said they were still seeking legal advice about how to proceed. Internal gates at the Manus Island detention centre have been opened and the refugees and asylum seekers inside are now allowed to move around more freely, detainees say. The Manus Island detention centre is made up of internally-secured accommodation compounds, which for the past two weeks have been used to separate detainees based on whether their refugee claims had succeeded. Detainees said there were celebrations after internal gates were opened about 11:30pm on Thursday night, allowing them to move about and see their friends. The perimeter gates remain locked and detainees cannot leave the centre, but they also say security staff have told them they are now allowed to possess and use mobile phones, which were previously banned.
Few Australians knew about what actually took place on Manus Island — and that’s pretty much the way the government wanted to keep it. Even human rights groups and lawyers have had difficulty getting access to the island. “The government has kept Manus Island and Nauru under a cloud of secrecy so its human rights abuses are far from scrutiny,” the spokesman said. A lot of what it does will be kept secret with harsh penalties for those who speak out.
The Manus Island Detention Centre cost an estimated $1 billion over four years alone. Further estimates obtained by the Refugee Action Coalition claim the cost offshore processing is around $400,000 per person per year. A Refugee Action Coalition spokesman said the $2 billion contract awarded last year to Transfield Services, now called Broadspectrum, to provide services at the government’s Nauru and Manus Island detention centres, was one example of how government money would have been better spent elsewhere. “This could buy a lot of services,” the spokesman told news.com.au. Green senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the centres were not only “cruel and illegal” but also immensely expensive to operate. “This money would be better spent on schools, hospitals and support for the homeless, but instead the government has spent billions on being cruel to people seeking asylum,” Ms Hanson-Young said.
Australia’s offshore detention policies have long drawn criticism from human rights groups with the nation earning damning report cards in world reports.
Amnesty International refugee co-ordinator Graham Thom said the money spent on “Australia’s inhumane detention policies” could be better spent elsewhere. Dr Thom said the money should instead should be reinvested in the Asia-Pacific region to create fair and efficient processes, as well as safe and legal routes which protect people looking for refuge.
“Mandatory offshore detention is not only illegal but harmful to the health and well-being of the hundreds of people stuck in centres like Manus and Nauru,” he said. “In the three years that the Manus Centre has been operational two lives have tragically been lost.”
According to Amnesty’s 2013 report This is Breaking People, hundreds of people lived in cramped and crowded dormitories, were kept thirsty by a constant lack of drinking water and were forced to queue for hours under blistering sun or in pouring rain for food. It also revealed people were forced to live in unhygienic spaces because there were not enough toilets and showers.
Australia director at Human Rights Watch Elaine Pearson said locking people up for years on end had severe mental health impacts and it was time for the Manus detention centre to be closed once and for all.
“This ruling is a massive victory for asylum seekers and refugees who remain locked up on a detention centre on a naval base in Manus, many for almost three years now,” she said. “PNG’s Supreme Court has recognised that detaining people who have committed no crime is wrong. For these men, their only ‘mistake’ was to try to seek sanctuary in Australia — that doesn’t deserve years in limbo locked up in a remote island prison.”