Pacific / Papua New Guinea

Refugees in PNG 'limbo': 'How much longer can our will survive?'

18:52 pm on 22 November 2019

First Person - Australia is deliberately prolonging the suffering of refugees it detained on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island who are now languishing in Port Moresby, writes refugee Shaminda Kanapathi.

In September 2016, the former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a deal with the US government, which was expected to resolve Australia's offshore detention dilemma. Under this deal, up to 1250 refugees from Manus Island and Nauru would be resettled in the US. For those of us detained on the islands, we truly believed it would be the turning point in this indefinite detention saga.

Shaminda Kanapathi farewells Behrouz Boochani at Port Moresby's airport. Photo: Shaminda Kanapathi

When we were first transferred to Manus Island, we were told that once our refugee status had been confirmed as genuine, we would be resettled in PNG according to the 19 July 2013 policy of the Rudd government. But we could clearly see that resettlement in PNG was never going to be a feasible option. For nearly seven years now the government has not budged from this untenable policy. It will not resettle us in Australia and has not found a suitable country other than the US that is willing to take us.

In early 2017, the US resettlement process began; interviews were conducted by the Resettlement Support Centre (RSC), with those who expressed an interest in going to America.

With renewed hope, most of us made an application for resettlement. An officer from the US Department of Homeland Security then interviewed us to determine our eligibility and to make a final decision regarding our application.

In October 2017, the first group of refugees were accepted by the US for resettlement. After receiving letters of approval, it was only a matter of weeks before the group had arrived in the US. This gave the rest of us hope for the future. I was one of the refugees who had completed both interviews and was waiting for a result.

In the beginning, the process appeared to be fast-tracked.

But after a few months the process slowed, almost coming to a halt. We had to wait months, then years, to complete the process. It is hard to wait for so long.

For some, it was over a year before they received an outcome from their first interview. Even those accepted had to wait many months before flying out. This delay in processing, this delay in decision making, this interminable waiting has affected everyone's mental health. I had to wait for 14 months to receive my US result. I was declined.

It is now late 2019. So far about 630 refugees from both Manus Island and Nauru have been resettled in the US. The RSC has officially announced that the programme will end on 20 December 2019.

Currently in Port Moresby, there are over 70 men approved and waiting to fly out. The system has slowed to such an extent that less than 10 men are being flown out each month. About 35 other men are still waiting for a decision from Homeland Security.

How long will it take? This long drawn-out process places enormous pressure on those of us who have already lost nearly seven years of our lives in indefinite detention.

We live in a state of limbo, perpetually fearful of decisions being made about our lives over which we have no control.

It appears that this is a deliberate tactic of the Australian government. A tactic designed to foster a sense of hopelessness in us so that we then communicate to others the futility of seeking asylum in Australia. We are being used in a sinister attempt to "stop the boats" and protect Australian borders.

We strongly believe that the Australian government will continue to use all possible tactics in order to buy time to promote its political agenda. Meanwhile, about 60 of us in Port Moresby declined by the US hold great fears that we will be abandoned in PNG and our right to self-determination forgotten.

A refugee boards the bus to his new community accommodation shortly before being returned to his hotel. Photo: Shaminda Kanapathi

Many Australian people have been led to believe that the refugees from Manus have been settled in a safe country. This fallacy was promoted by the PNG and Australian governments' joint announcement regarding the closure of Manus Island detention centres. Indeed, the centres have been closed but contrary to the message the governments sent out, a permanent and durable solution has not been found for about 180 of the 250 or so refugees still in PNG.

The only durable solution readily available is to accept New Zealand's long-standing offer of refugee resettlement.

The Australian government continues to refuse this offer to resettle 150 refugees from Manus and Nauru each year. There is no credible reason for this refusal, other than to extract every last ounce of border security political capital. The United Nations has been calling for our release, yet still the government refuses to budge.

The rationale used by the government is that by allowing us to live in New Zealand we will then attempt to come to Australia. Why would we?

After the past six years of dehumanising treatment, having undergone and witnessed cruelty of the highest order, we would have no desire to risk our safety by going to Australia.

Yet the government continues to spread fear by saying we would attempt to enter Australia by the 'backdoor' that is New Zealand.

Those of us who have been unsuccessful with our applications to resettle in the US have been informed we will be relocated to community accommodation in Port Moresby until third country options are found. Initially on arrival from Manus Island in August we were placed in the Granville motel.

We have been instructed to sign a consent document agreeing to community placement. So far, we have refused to sign on the grounds that we have not been given sufficient information about the accommodation, its facilities and location, or the support that will be provided to us.

We are in an unfamiliar country; many men are physically and mentally unwell and in no position to care for themselves.

After years of inadequate medical treatment and nutrition, along with the trauma of being held against our will indefinitely despite having committed no crime, the task of relocating to an unknown destination where we have no ties with the community and no reassurance of a strong support network is a frightening and unreasonable demand. For those men already mentally ill and suffering from paranoia, it compounds their illness.

Ultimately those of us who have no prospect of being resettled in the US are at great risk of being abandoned in PNG.

Each day we are no closer to the safety or freedom we sought as refugees when we fled our homelands. The universal legal right to seek safety and freedom is still being denied to us.

We are here in limbo struggling to retain our sanity and strength on a daily basis. For how much longer are we to endure this? For how much longer can our will survive?