In the wake of Covid-19, the US refugee resettlement program has been suspended and advocates have serious fears for those stuck in offshore detention in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. By Rebekah Holt and Meg Watson.

New fears for asylum seekers in PNG and Nauru

The Health minister of Papua New Guinea has been cautioned of “possible deaths and a huge national embarrassment” if his country does not immediately transfer refugees to the Australian mainland.

This plea came on March 23 from Father Giorgio Licini, the general secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. “While Australia is equipped to face a [Covid-19] outbreak, Papua New Guinea and Nauru are not,” Licini wrote in a letter to PNG Prime Minister James Marape and other MPs, noting those in detention – 183 people in PNG and 205 on Nauru – are “already significantly debilitated” and more susceptible to infection and complication.

“God forbid Papua New Guinea becomes responsible for the death of non-citizens!” Licini warned.

In this uncertain time, few are facing more uncertainty than the people stuck in Australia’s offshore processing system. Many of these refugees have endured years of torturous conditions and silence on their fates.

Now they find themselves locked out of Australia, effectively stripped of the chance of resettlement in the United States and stranded in countries that do not want them and lack the resources to adequately care for them during a global pandemic.

Shaminda, a refugee who is residing in a hotel in PNG’s capital, Port Moresby, says he and other refugees are “feeling vulnerable”.

“We are not strong mentally or physically after seven years in these conditions. We could so easily become sick,” he says.

“We have to go into the community to buy our food and see doctors and that makes us feel even more vulnerable … Most of the locals in Port Moresby seem unaware of the pandemic. It feels like a lack of precautions and a lack of information getting through to locals.

“We are trying our best to stay safe so we can see our families again.”

Covid-19 has increased the refugees’ concern about lack of access to effective medical care – an anxiety that’s been deepening since the repeal of the medevac legislation late last year.

“We have left these people there for far too long,” says Tim McKenna, a volunteer with the St Vincent de Paul Society who visited the men in PNG a few weeks ago. “These men have been in this situation for almost seven years; that is 2557 days. I found it difficult and frustrating doing 14 days of isolation [after coming home to Australia]; try doing that 180 times and still not having a solution to your situation.”

Some of these refugees had been given a solution: 40 to 50 men in Port Moresby, and eight to 10 people in Nauru, had been accepted into the US resettlement program and were awaiting their flights. But this lifeline is now in limbo.

Ian Rintoul of Refugee Action Coalition says that in mid-March “the two latest flights that were meant to go from Nauru and from PNG [to the US] were cancelled”. US officials who had been facilitating the transfer also left, to get home before borders closed. Refugees who had been accepted into the program had undertaken cultural courses and were completing their final course of medications to prepare. Then they were told the move was cancelled.

Shaminda confirms this. “Some of the men have been told that the US program has stopped because of Covid,” he says. “They don’t know when it will begin again.”


There is a huge concern in PNG about the spread of Covid-19. The country is already struggling with high rates of tuberculosis, malaria and HIV. Many locals are immunocompromised, and 60 per cent of the population does not have access to clean water.

Father Licini says that “a massive community transmission [of Covid-19] would be catastrophic in PNG”. And he’s not alone. Thousands of PNG nurses have been on strike over the past two weeks to protest a lack of funding and medical supplies to deal with a potential Covid-19 outbreak. According to Jonathan Pryke of the Lowy Institute, there are just a dozen or so ventilators in Port Moresby, where about 180 refugees who were previously held in Australia’s Manus Island detention centre are now residing.

So far, PNG has had only one confirmed case of Covid-19: a foreign mineworker who entered the country in mid-March and has since been flown to Australia for treatment. Prime Minister Marape declared a two-week state of emergency on March 24, in which all non-essential workers must stay home.

Tim McKenna says things were already difficult when he travelled to PNG in early March.

The refugees he spoke to described taking great care when they left their accommodation to shop or seek medical care. They take minimal cash because of the frequency of robberies. They travel by taxi, when possible, but are only given vouchers for roughly one return trip a week. The vouchers are valid with only one company, which is not always available after dark or on weekends. This is a problem if the men get sick and need transport to a medical facility.

Paul Power, chief executive of the Refugee Council of Australia, says “everything is on hold” for the 205 refugees on Nauru. There are no known cases of Covid-19 on the island, but the nation is in a 30-day state of emergency.

“A number of services including mental health, interpreters, lawyers and visiting medical specialists have had to stop. Even Australian Border Force (ABF) staff have left the island,” he says. “Asylum seekers on Nauru have no indication of what will happen and, unlike PNG, there isn’t independent support from the community.”

Of particular concern are the people who have been rejected by the US: at least 180 in PNG and Nauru, for whom the Australian government has no plan for safe and permanent resettlement.

Some of these refugees had hopes for resettlement in Canada. In relation to this, Power says: “Currently, refugee arrivals from PNG and Nauru have ceased for the time being, but processing of applications is ongoing. The Refugee Council of Australia is working with an NGO in Vancouver on at least 60 applications and we expect more in the coming months.”

McKenna points to the refugee deal that New Zealand authorities assured Australia was still “on the cards” as recently as December last year. He says, “Simply accepting the New Zealand offer of accepting 150 people per year would solve this problem almost immediately.”

Ian Rintoul says the risk for these refugees – and the cost to Australian taxpayers – could also be significantly reduced if the men were transferred to the Australian mainland, even just temporarily.

“Financially, ethically and morally, it is beyond bewildering that the Australian government would be leaving people vulnerable to the coronavirus in PNG [and Nauru],” he says.

On Christmas Island, Priya, Nades and their young daughters Kopika and Tharunicaa, the Tamil family from Biloela, Queensland, are once again the sole inhabitants of the island’s detention centre after those returning from Wuhan completed their quarantine. The family is in a different, but similarly precarious, situation.

An Australian territory, Christmas Island declared a state of emergency on March 18 and instituted a travel ban. “Only residents and essential staff will be able to travel to Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands until further notice, and anyone returning to CI or CKI will need to self-isolate for 14 days,” the announcement read.

There are no known cases of Covid-19 on the island, but Priya is concerned about contact with the guards and other staff. “I get frightened every day because I see new staff and I worry about where they have come from,” she says. “Yesterday, a new doctor arrived for International Health and Medical Services and last week we think a new ABF staffer arrived and we don’t know if they have been in isolation.

“Last week, we had a doctor’s appointment and there were eight of us all in a small room, once all their staff arrived. I was terrified by how close we all had to be.”

ABF did not answer questions about staff movements and isolation periods by time of press. The family’s lawyer, Carina Ford, says, “We are continuing to take these issues up with Border Force.”

Priya, who has diabetes, among other health conditions, says the family has asked to be moved to community detention. “It would be much safer and better during the pandemic,” she says.

Ford notes “the court is still making decisions” about Tharunicaa’s asylum claim and it’s “difficult to predict” when a decision will be made. But, she says, there’s no reason the family shouldn’t be transferred. “The family are not a risk … [they could] be released on a bridging visa with conditions and be allowed to return to Biloela.”

Australia’s government guidelines on Covid-19 lists “people in detention facilities” as one of the groups “most at risk of getting the virus”.

“I know my mind is very upset from being held in detention for over two years,” Priya says. “But now, with this, the worry makes my heart beat too fast all the time.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 4, 2020 as "Detention disorder".

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