Pacific / Papua New Guinea

Australia 'coercing' Manus Island asylum seekers to go home

14:14 pm on 23 October 2019

Australia is using harsh conditions to coerce Manus Island asylum seekers into accepting repatriation, the Catholic Church in Papua New Guinea says.

Refugees protest in the unfinished West Lorengau Transit Centre, 27-11-17. Photo: supplied

Listen to Father Giorgio Licini's interview here

Forty-seven men not given refugee status have been held at the Australian built Bomana immigration detention centre in Port Moresby since August.

Twenty-four other asylum seekers were separated from about 200 refugees in the city yesterday. A note seen by RNZ Pacific said the men were being moved to the Citi Apartments in East Boroko.

The general secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of PNG, Father Giorgio Licini, said he hoped the 24 did not end up in Bomana.

"All of them are in bad shape from the point of view of health," Fr Giorgio said.

"Apparently in Bomana conditions are quite harsh and quite debilitating.

"We tend to believe that the government of Australia is making life particularly harsh for them inside Bomana in order to convince them to sign for repatriations."

Giorgio Licini. Photo: Facebook / Giorgio Licini

The church's suspicion is backed up by precedent. In 2017, documents leaked to the Guardian showed the Australian government was allowing conditions to degrade inside the Manus Island detention centre at Lombrum in order to make refugees leave.

Fr Giorgio said he had spoken to two of six asylum seekers released from Bomana last week after they agreed to be repatriated.

"They are quite exhausted, emaciated and in very bad psychological shape," he said.

"Food is scarce [in Bomana]. What is being given in three meals a day is actually the equivalent of one meal.

"On their first night, 15 of them have committed self harm and during these past few weeks they say about 90 percent of them committed self harm.

"One apparently was on hunger strike for a long time. One overdosed on tablets he was able to collect."

The two men agreed to return to Iran after just nine weeks in Bomana, having refused repatriation during six years of detention on Manus Island.

Fr Giorgio said the men claimed to have been imprisoned for political reasons in Iran, one for three years who was expecting a 24-year jail term upon his return.

While their asylum claims were likely to be legitimate, Fr Giorgio noted many Iranians among the 70 or so asylum seekers left in PNG had refused to apply for refugee status.

Asylum seekers board a bus at Granville Hotel. Photo: Shaminda Kanapathi

Refugee advocate Ian Rintoul said he was also concerned the 24 would soon find themselves in "an even more punitive regime".

Asylum seekers detained at Bomana had only been allowed one visit from the International Committee of the Red Cross while the Australian Red Cross was excluded, Mr Rintoul said.

"It is clear that Bomana detention is being used to coerce asylum seekers to return home," he said.

"The Australian government is enforcing a level of brutality that it knows it would not get away with in Australia."

Australian officials, however, "have no visibility of what goes on inside" Bomana.

Bomana Correctional Facility, Papua New Guinea Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

That's according to General Craig Furini of the Operation Sovereign Borders Joint Agency Task Force, who spoke at a Senate Estimates Hearing in Canberra on Monday.

The Senate also heard that about 10 men detained at Bomana had been approved for medical transfers to Australia but were prevented from going by their incarceration.

Fr Giorgio said about 20 others in Bomana were in the process of applying for medical transfers when they were locked up.

"Which becomes practically impossible if they are in isolation in the sense that it's hard to talk to any doctors from Australia taking care of medevac. They need to talk to them on the phone personally at least twice... or more if the case is complex."

The PNG Immigration and Citizenship Authority did not respond to questions but Fr Giorgio said it was not the PNG government stopping asylum seekers from accessing treatment in Australia.

"I maintain that this is an Australian initiative, it's an Australian business, it's Australian funded. Decisions are taken in Australia not in Papua New Guinea," he said.

"Bomana is purely, 100 percent the work of Australia."