Pacific / Papua New Guinea

Canadian Aussies save refugees from PNG prison fate

16:28 pm on 8 November 2019

Rescuing asylum seekers from detention in Papua New Guinea's Bomana prison complex is the aim of a group privately sponsoring the resettlement of refugees in Canada.

Amir Sahragard (centre) is welcomed by supporters at Toronto airport. Photo: Ads Up

About 50 asylum seekers formerly detained on Manus Island by Australia have been locked away in Port Moresby's Bomana for three months.

About 75 asylum seekers remain in PNG, where they're known as non-refugees or 'negatives'. About 200 other men recognised as refugees are also still there.

Many of the 'negatives' refused to apply for refugee status. They didn't want asylum in a developing country where they were forcibly moved six years ago after landing in Australia.

Canada group rescues refugees from PNG's Bomana prison

One of them is Amir Sahragard, who arrived in Toronto last week with the help of the group Ads Up, or Aussie Diaspora Steps up.

The 27-year-old refugee from Iran said he had spoken to men recently released from Bomana after they agreed to return to the country they fled.

"They call it a detention centre but Bomana, it's worse than prison," Mr Sahragard said.

"They are without contact, are not allowed to have visitors, they're doing naked body searches, they're giving them only one meal in a day," he said.

"Their families are desperately worried about them and contacting lots of people to ask what's going on, where are their sons, where are their husbands... I had lots of stress that they might come and take me anytime to that prison."

'Horrible limbo'

Ads Up spokesperson Stephen Watt said Bomana was the next level of cruelty for Manus Island refugees.

"Their glasses are confiscated, their cell phones are confiscated, their medication is confiscated. They are not allowed visitors, not even the UNHCR can visit them," Mr Watt said.

"They're kind of put in a black hole in which the only escape is suicide. There's been a spate of suicide attempts but this prison is sort of cleverly engineered to not allow them to kill themselves," he said.

"They're in this really horrible limbo, and the Canadian private sponsorship programme is the only hope they have for ever getting out unless they volunteer to go back to their own country, which is often a different kind of death sentence."

Stephen Watt greets Amir Sahragard at Toronto Airport. Photo: Ads Up

Mr Sahragard said he did not believe Australian government claims that it had no oversight of Bomana.

"They're saying that it's not their responsibility, or this is not what they are doing but I know and I'm sure that it's an order from Home Affairs of Australia that sent them there," he said.

"There are 18 people who are also in danger to be sent there. I am in contact with them and they are really, really worried, and it might happen any time, any day. It's really the most scary thing that you can imagine.

Ads Up was bringing another 'negative' to Canada today. It had applied to bring five more people from Australian offshore detention and had so far raised enough money to make 10 more applications, Mr Watt said.

"There's a lot of funding coming in, actually from Australians of all people. Perhaps they see the harm that's been done to these guys. I don't know if it's a guilt thing," he said.

"If people think the Australian refugee policy is horrendous and inhumane and brutal, it's a very important lesson that you have to distinguish the government from the people that it represents. They're often very different."