1960s: West Papuan refugees on Manus Island
University of Sydney immigration law specialist Professor Mary Crock says that Australia’s history of offshore processing goes back to the 1960s, when Manus Island was set up to take refugees from West Papua. Known as “Salasia Camp”, it consisted of a few corrugated iron houses on a bare concrete slab, not far from a beach near the main town Lorengau. Indonesia was preparing a military takeover of the former Dutch New Guinea colony in the 1960s, causing thousands of refugees, known as “West Irians” to flee into the then Australian colony of Papua New Guinea. Many were turned back by Australian patrol officers on the border but a few dozen received special visas and the first were sent to Manus in 1968 by the Australian government, to a camp was built by Australia in order to avoid a diplomatic confrontation with Indonesia. According to historian Klaus Neumann of Deakin University, “Australia had not objected to Indonesia’s takeover of the Dutch colony, and Australia had recognised Indonesia was now in charge of former Western New Guinea, so for Australia to grant refugee status posed a diplomatic problem”. So by sending them to the remotest place in PNG the Australian authorities thought they would avoid any trouble with Indonesia. The camp was not a detention centre, and many stayed on, stateless, until in 2017, these West Papuans were finally offered PNG citizenship.
2001: The Pacific Solution
The centre was originally established on 21 October 2001, as one of two Offshore Processing Centres (OPC). The other OPC was the Nauru detention centre. The OPC facilities were part of what became known as the “Pacific Solution“, a policy of the Howard Government in Australia, which was implemented in the wake of the Tampa affair. The policy involved the excision of Australian external territories (Christmas Island, Ashmore and Cartier Islands and Cocos (Keeling) Island) and other islands in the Pacific Ocean—from the Australian migration zone. Asylum-seekers arriving by boat without visas in these excised territories to seek asylum in Australia) were transferred to the OPC facilities where they would stay while their claims for asylum were processed. The centres were managed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
2003–2008: disuse and closure
The Manus Regional Processing Centre fell into disuse in preference to the Nauru centre. In July 2003, the immigration department announced that the centre would be wound down and the remaining detainees would be granted asylum and resettled in Australia. However, the centre would continue to be maintained in case the need for reactivation arose.
Aladdin Sisalem, a Kuwaiti-born Palestinian, fled Kuwait in 2000 and in December 2002 arrived at an island in the Torres Strait where he claimed asylum, and was sent to the Manus centre. For ten months, Sisalem was the sole detainee at the centre, with a small staff of guards and cleaners for company. In May 2004, he was resettled in Melbourne.
With the election of the Rudd Government (Labor) in 2007, the Manus Regional Processing Centre was formally closed in early 2008, fulfilling an election promise by Rudd to end the offshore processing system.
2012–2013: Reopening and the “PNG solution”
In 2012, a significant rise in the number of irregular maritime arrivals saw the “asylum issue” become a political liability for the government. The Gillard Government commissioned Angus Houston, former Chief of the Defence Force, to lead an expert panel to conduct a review of asylum arrangements. Among the 22 recommendations made in the Houston report was one to re-open the OPC facilities on Nauru and at the Manus Regional Processing Centre.
In November 2012, the Manus Regional Processing Centre was re-opened by the Labor government, due to the large volume of irregular maritime arrivals. Then Immigration Minister Chris Bowen stated “At this stage, family groups are best accommodated on Manus Island, as opposed to Nauru.” The British services company G4S was responsible for its operation.
In July 2013, shortly after Kevin Rudd returned as prime minister for a second time, the government announced that boat arrivals would never be allowed to resettle in Australia. The following month, it agreed to give Papua New Guinea A$400m (£230m; $310m) in aid in exchange for their part of the deal, which included agreeing to resettle refugees. Officially called the Regional Resettlement Arrangement between Australia and Papua New Guinea, the policy became known as the PNG Solution. On 19 July 2013 Rudd and Papua New Guinean Prime Minister Peter O’Neill announced the Regional Resettlement Arrangement policy in Brisbane.
After the Liberal/National coalition won the federal election on 7 September 2013, Tony Abbott was sworn in as Prime Minister, and Operation Sovereign Borders came into effect, reinforcing the policy of no maritime arrivals being resettled in Australia.
The Australian government’s decision to resume offshore processing met with domestic political opposition from the Greens.
In March 2014, the contract with G4S expired, and the Australian government entered into a 20-month contract worth AUD $1.22 billion with Broadspectrum (which operated the facility in Nauru) for facilities management including building maintenance and catering, with security provided by Wilson Security.
Riots; murder of Reza Barati
On 17 February 2014, a series of protests by detainees at the centre escalated into a serious disturbance, which resulted in injuries to about 70 asylum seekers as well as the death of one detainee: 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker Reza Berati was murdered by being struck with wood and a rock. In April 2016 two detention centre workers, Joshua Kaluvia and Louie Efi, were each sentenced to 10 years in jail for Berati’s murder.
Robert Cornall was appointed in February 2014 to conduct “a review into the circumstances surrounding the Manus centre disturbances” leading up to Berati’s death with the primary focus on management of security at the centre. Cornall presented his review to the Immigration Department on 23 May 2014.
Cornall had previously conducted an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse at the Manus Regional Processing Centre, his report being presented to the Department in September 2013.
Death of Hamid Kehazaei
On 24 August 2014, 24-year-old Iranian asylum seeker Hamid Kehazaei sought medical treatment at the detention centre’s clinic for an infected wound after cutting his foot. Kehazaei’s condition worsened and he could not be treated on the island. Medical staff sought his immediate evacuation, but permission was not granted until 26 August. Kehazaei was declared brain dead in a Brisbane hospital on 2 September 2016. With his family’s permission, his life-support was switched off on 5 September 2016. An inquest into Kehazaei’s death began in the Coroner’s Court in Brisbane on 28 November 2016. The article “The day my friend Hamid Kehazaei died”, written by Behrouz Boochani, tells the story of Kehazaei’s death.
April: Hunger strike
In January 2015, up to 500 men went on a hunger strike, barricading themselves in the camp, with at least 20 men sewing their lips together in protest. This was met with force. In March 2015, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he was “sick of being lectured” by the UN over Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, reiterating that its policy saves lives at sea.
A controversial decision by the Australian government in July 2015 to make reporting of abuse within the centre illegal prompted staff at those centres to begin a campaign of civil disobedience.
April: declared illegal by PNG court
On 26 April 2016, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea found that the Centre breached the PNG constitution’s right to personal liberty, and was thus illegal. It said:
|“||Both the Australian and Papua New Guinea governments shall forthwith take all steps necessary to cease and prevent the continued unconstitutional and illegal detention of the asylum seekers or transferees at the relocation centre on Manus Island …”||”|
Late on 27 April 2016, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill announced that the processing centre would be closed, saying his government “will immediately ask the Australian Government to make alternative arrangements for the asylum seekers” and that “we did not anticipate the asylum seekers to be kept as long as they have been at the Manus Centre.” He said that Papua New Guinea was proud to play an important role in stopping the loss of life due to people smuggling. O’Neill said negotiations with Australia would focus on the timeframe for the closure and for the settlement of legitimate refugees interested in staying in Papua New Guinea.
Australia’s immigration minister, Peter Dutton, confirmed on 17 August 2016 that the centre was to be closed, but no timescale was given.
November–December: US resettlement deal, another death
In November 2016 it was announced that a deal had been made with the United States to resettle people held in detention on Manus (and Nauru) Islands.Details were not been made public, but the US would determine the total number of refugees it would take, eligible applicants still needing to clear US authorities’ “extreme vetting” procedures.
In December, 27-year-old Sudanese refugee Faysal Ishal Ahmed, allegedly ill for months, died after suffering a seizure and a fall.
April: PNG Defence Force attack
On 14 April 2017, asylum seekers and centre staff alleged they had been shot at by locals. Ray Numa, Chief of Staff of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force, confirmed that staff at Lombrum Naval Base were investigating the involvement of PNG defence personnel in the attacks, stressing that misuse of weapons was a serious breach of military discipline, and that the police would prosecute any members breaching civil laws. Australian authorities later confirmed that nine people were injured when PNGDF personnel had fired “many” shots into the compound, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull‘s government claiming that the incident was sparked by locals’ anger over claims that a boy had been led towards the centre by asylum seekers, but this version was disputed by PNG Police Commissioner David Yapu, who said that nothing had happened to the boy.
June: AU$70m class action settlement
A class action suit on behalf of persons detained on Manus Island from 21 November 2012 until 19 December 2014, and 21 November 2012 until 12 May 2016 was brought by lead plaintiff Majid Karami Kamasaee against the Commonwealth of Australia, G4S Australia and Broadspectrum. The claim was in negligence and false imprisonment. Kamasaee was represented by law firm Slater and Gordon.
Slater and Gordon reached a settlement with the Commonwealth of Australia, G4S Australia and Broadspectrum on 14 June 2017 for $70 million plus costs (estimated at $20 million), with no admission of liability. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the settlement was not an admission of liability and the Commonwealth strongly refuted and denied the claims brought in the class action.
August–October: 2 deaths; US takes first refugees
On 7 August 2017 Iranian asylum seeker Hamed Shamshiripour was found dead in Lorengau. He was known to have a history of mental illness and refugee advocates had been trying to get help for him.
In September 2017, the US accepted 22 refugees from Manus Island, its first intake under the resettlement deal, with others apparently taking the number up to 54.
On 2 October 2017, 32-year-old Sri Lankan Tamil, Rajeev Rajendran, was found dead on the grounds of the Lorengau hospital, a suspected suicide.
31 October: closure of centre
The centre was formally closed on 31 October 2017. However, nearly 600 men refused to leave the centre, citing fears for their safety amid hostile locals. A notice posted during the night by PNG Immigration authorities said “The Manus RPC will close at 5 pm today” (31 October), and that all power, water and food supply would cease. The PNG military took control of the area. Alternative accommodation had been provided at the East Lorengau Refugee Transit Centre and West Lorengau Haus.
On 22 November 2017, Papua New Guinea Police moved in to try to get the more than 350 men remaining in the centre to leave. By 23 November 2017, all remaining men had been removed, more than 300 by force, to new accommodation.
Detainee Behrouz Boochani wrote of what was happening and of his fear during the siege that followed the closure, as well as the articles he wrote for The Guardian at the time, amongst other things, in WhatsApp messages to translator and friend Omid Tofighian, published in full online. The messages were eventually published in the book No Friend But the Mountains.
Twelve Australians of the Year protested the government’s handling of the problem in November 2017. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees cited the centre as an “indictment of a policy meant to avoid Australia’s international obligations.”
January: US resettlement
On 23 January 2018, a second group of 54 refugees left for the US. Detainee Behrouz Boochani wrote of what was happening and of his fear during the siege that followed the closure, as well as the articles he wrote for The Guardian at the time, amongst other things, in WhatsApp messages to translator and friend Omid Tofighian, published in full online.The messages were eventually published in the book No Friend But the Mountains.
May: Another death
After a long history of mental illness, 52-year-old Rohingya, Salim, died on 22 May 2018.
February: “Medevac” bill
On 13 February 2019, a bill which became known as the “Medevac bill” was narrowly passed by the Australian parliament, allowing doctors to have more say in the process by which asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru may be brought to the mainland for treatment. The approval of two doctors is required, but approval may still be overridden by the home affairs minister in one of three areas. Human rights advocates hailed the decision, with one calling it a “tipping point as a country”, with the weight of public opinion believing that sick people need treatment.
March: Court action against PNG gov
In March 2019, an action was launched in the Supreme Court of PNG by a group of asylum seekers who will argue that they are still being imprisoned, despite no longer being confined to the detention centre. Referring to the 2016 ruling by the Supreme Court that their detention was illegal, lawyer Ben Lomai said that the current situation, with no time frame given as to how long they will be there, amounts to detention. They will also be asking for the men to be given travel documents which will allow them to move around within the country and also overseas. At the moment they have to apply through an arduous process, cannot travel to other provinces and need permission to travel to Port Moresby or for any exceptions to the curfew which restricts them to the accommodation centres at night.
There was confusion about the application of Medevac bill. A Sri Lankan refugee reported that self-harm is a regular occurrence. Signs had gone up around the camp saying that any medical evacuations will be temporary only, that Christmas Island had been reopened and that none of them would ever settle in Australia. The unsigned notification was posted by Behrouz Boochani on Twitter.
June: Despair after election
After the Australian Liberal Party were (unexpectedly, according to polls) re-elected 2019 Australian federal election, reports of despair and attempted self-harm and suicide were reported from Manus. The men had hoped with Labor in government, the New Zealand offer would be accepted and they would at last be resettled. By 4 June there had been at least 26 attempts at suicide or self-harm by men in the Lorengau camps and Port Moresby (in the hospital and accommodation for sick asylum seekers). The PNG paramilitary police squad was deployed around one of the camps in an attempt to deter suicide and self-harm attempts. Lorengau general hospital has been handling many of the self-harm and suicide cases, despite the Australian government contract with Pacific International Health (PIH), because of the seriousness of the cases. The police commander commented that they were doing all they could, but severe mental illness arose because of the effect of long-term detention on the men.
In early June, prominent refugee and advocate Abdul Aziz Muhamat was granted asylum in Switzerland, four months after flying there to receive the Martin Ennals award (see below). He said that he said he would continue to speak out against the offshore processing policy and support the other men still in detention.
After escalating incidents of attempted suicide and self-harm (by 13 June Boochani had reported 50 on the island and in Port Moresby) Chief Inspector David Yapu of PNG police and the Governor of the Manus Province, Charlie Benjamin, called for the Australian Government to step in and deal with the remaining men (more than 570 as of February). Benjamin said that he would be bringing up the matter with new prime minister James Marape.
From August onwards, men started to be transferred to Port Moresby, with some being flown to the US as part of the refugee swap and others being incarcerated in Bomana prison. Some of the men were moved into the Bomana Immigration Centre, a detention facility which is part of the Bomana prison complex, having to surrender their mobile phones beforehand. Shortly afterwards, the remaining asylum seekers were offered voluntary relocation to accommodation in Port Moresby by the PNG government.
The Australian government reported that as of 30 September total numbers of asylum seekers left in PNG and Nauru was 562 (23 percent of the peak, in June 2014), and another 1,117 people had been “temporarily transferred to Australia for medical treatment or as accompanying family members”. Numbers for each facility were not given separately.
On 15 October, a 32-year-old Afghan refugee and doctor, Sayed Mirwais Rohani, jumped to his death from the 22nd floor of a Brisbane hotel, after suffering from acute mental distress. He had a medical degree recognised by Australia, completed in English, and spoke six languages. He had offered to work in the Lorengau hospital for free, and was moved out of the detention centre, but not allowed to work in the hospital. His parents were refugees in Britain and his father travelled to Manus in 2016 and 2018 to attempt to secure his son’s release, but both attempts had failed.
On 14 November 2019, Boochani left Manus and travelled to New Zealand on a one-month visa to appear as guest speaker at a special event organised by WORD Christchurch on 29 November, as well as other speaking events. The US had technically accepted him as part of the “refugee swap” deal, but now that he had left PNG, he feared that his status was uncertain. Boochani feels a sense of duty towards the men he was forced to leave behind on PNG. He said that apart from those who have died, about three-quarters of the refugees and asylum seekers sent to Manus since 2012 had left, to Australia, the US or other countries. However he remained deeply concerned about those who were still trapped there, especially the 46 who are being held in Bomana prison in Port Moresby.
By mid-September only a handful of the peak total of 1500 men were left on Manus, after about 280 men had been transferred to Port Moresby. About 80 of them, housed in the Granville Motel, were being told to move into the community or have their allowances cut.
The Australian government, upon request by the PNG government, gave notices to Paladin and to NKW Holdings to terminate their services on 30 November 2019. All remaining men would be moved to Port Moresby, and thereafter managed by the PNG government.
New Zealand has repeatedly offered to accept 150 refugees per annum from the offshore detention centres, but Australia would not agree to this.