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Ahead of a senate vote that could repeal the medevac legislation, the fate of more than 200 asylum seekers in Port Moresby hangs in the balance. By Paddy Manning.

Risking life in PNG limbo

Catholic priest Giorgio Licini is blunt about the fate of those who sought asylum in Australia but are now stranded in guesthouses and motels across Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby.

The men left behind, says Licini, who is the general secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, “will die in a short span of time”.

“Telling these exhausted people to start a life in PNG, forcing them to start a life in PNG, well, you will kill them. They will come out, they will roam around – no jobs, no food, no security – thugs will attack them. They will be in a very, very dramatic situation.

“If Australia intends to kill that way 200 people, well, you will take an historic responsibility.”

Now, almost seven years after it was reopened, Australia’s infamous Manus Island Regional Processing Centre is closed. The controversial $423 million contract with offshore security company Paladin will expire at the end of the month.

Some 120 former Manus detainees were transferred to Port Moresby in August, and only four remain on the island – two are in jail, one is facing criminal charges and the final man, Haroon Rashid, has married and started a family, and hopes to stay permanently.

At Port Moresby, the asylum seekers – about 320 in all – have been split into groups and accommodated in various lodgings. About 70 are on a pathway to resettlement in the United States and expect to fly out within weeks. Another 25 or so are hoping for resettlement in Canada, under a private sponsorship scheme that costs $18,000 a person.

Another 10 have been approved for medical evacuation to Australia and are waiting anxiously to hear the fate of medevac laws, which the government hopes to repeal. The senate sits next week, but it is not clear whether the government intends to bring on the repeal bill for a vote. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton told 2GB’s Ray Hadley on Thursday, “We’ll see how we go.”

These 10 men had been arrested and are held in Bomana Prison, with little ability to contact the outside world. They, along with 37 others in Bomana, are among the asylum seekers who never applied for refugee status or whose applications have been rejected, and have been knocked back for resettlement by the US. They are known in PNG as the “negatives”. Australia doesn’t want them, America doesn’t want them, Papua New Guinea doesn’t want them.

Carolina Gottardo, co-convenor of the Catholic Alliance for People Seeking Asylum and director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, was in Port Moresby meeting with asylum seekers this week. She is most concerned about the men in Bomana, who have been denied visitors, phones and access to a lawyer and are said to be on meagre rations equivalent to one meal a day.

Only the Red Cross has seen these men, says Gottardo. “We understand that conditions are extreme. Portions of food are meagre; they are not enough for anyone to live on. People have lost weight – 12 to 15 kilograms – in a very short period of time,” she says. “We understand there is no access to daylight or any activity. No visitors allowed, and no contact with families … People have told us the situation is unbearable. This is what we understand. Much worse than it was in Manus. It’s a very serious situation, what is happening there.”

The men inside Bomana are being put under intense pressure to return to their home countries, says Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition. “That is the name of the game. They were put in Bomana – so-called negatives – to actually force them to sign to go home.”

Rintoul says the other 60 or so “negatives”, many of whom are staying at the Citi Boutique Hotel, are being pressured to go back to their home countries of Iran, Afghanistan, Myanmar or Syria, or face imprisonment in Port Moresby. “They have been approached to sign and go home, and threatened to [be put] into Bomana,” Rintoul says.

So far, eight of the 47 men held inside the prison – having spent almost seven years in detention – have decided to return home after less than three months.

The Australian government, which spent about $22 million building Bomana, now claims to have no knowledge of or responsibility for the conditions inside. In a recent senate estimates hearing, Greens Immigration spokesperson Nick McKim asked whether people were being held in solitary confinement.

“I’m not familiar with the conditions inside Bomana,” replied Craig Furini, head of Operation Sovereign Borders. Senator McKim asked whether Furini had taken any steps to familiarise himself with the conditions. “I have not,” Furini replied. “The Bomana immigration facility is operated solely by the government of PNG. The decision to detain those 53 originally and to release the six was a decision by the government of PNG, and we have no visibility of what goes on inside.”

The Department of Home Affairs had to take on notice McKim’s follow-up question – whether any of its staff, including members of the Australian Federal Police, were assisting PNG’s Immigration and Citizenship Authority with the operation of Bomana.

The situation for the asylum seekers outside Bomana is not much better. Most do not feel safe in Port Moresby, and generally stay inside their hotels. Those with medical conditions have either been kept in the main hospital in Port Moresby or accommodated at the Granville Motel.

Speaking with those men, Carolina Gottardo says, she could not help thinking that “despite the fact that they are quite severely ill, and that they have already been recommended for medevac, their destinies are depending on a vote … despite the seven years of suffering that they have endured.

“If the legislation is repealed, what is going to happen to those guys?”

Tasmanian independent Jacqui Lambie holds the balance of power in the senate on medevac repeal but has not signalled which way she is leaning.

“As you know, the vote is depending on one parliamentarian,” says Gottardo. “We’re just hoping that that one parliamentarian follows her judgement and votes for the dignity and the conscience of people that have been suffering for so, so many years.”

Rallies on behalf of the asylum seekers will be held on Saturday in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, while an all-night vigil outside Parliament House in Canberra has been planned for Sunday night.

The former independent member for Indi, Cathy McGowan, has spent much of her time since leaving politics campaigning on the issue of asylum seekers. She has travelled around the country on a speaking tour with Rural Australians for Refugees, which has mounted a letter-writing campaign to government MPs, calling on them to oppose the medevac repeal and to accept New Zealand’s offer to resettle up to 150 asylum seekers a year.

Formal replies indicate the government will not be accepting the New Zealand offer “at this stage” and spell out that the asylum seekers transferred from Manus are expected to either settle permanently in PNG if they cannot find a third country to reside in, or return home.

McGowan has deep connections with PNG as a former president of Women in Agriculture, which has a sister chapter there. She visited the country many times during the decade before she entered politics, and returned to Port Moresby and Manus earlier this year.

She says the feeling on the ground is “incredulity” that Australia does not understand the issues PNG is trying to juggle – deteriorating public finances, an influx of thousands of asylum seekers from Irian Jaya and the expectation that Bougainville will vote for independence in this month’s referendum.

In the middle of all that, she says, local women told her, “You expect these asylum seekers to stay here, and they don’t want to be here and they’re not going to settle in? We’ve got enough problems of our own that we’re trying to manage.” McGowan continues: “And then they would say to me, ‘Well, is Australia going to help us with our asylum seekers?’”

McGowan says Papua New Guineans she met would like Australia to stop spending millions detaining asylum seekers – money that has gone straight to offshore companies such as Paladin, rather than local companies – and instead invest in productive agriculture.

“The real frustration with this,” says McGowan, “is what would it take for the Australian government to accept the New Zealand offer? The only reason they are [not] doing it is holding them as a deterrent to stop the boats coming. I think the cost to our international reputation in Papua New Guinea … and the cost to us as a nation is just too great.”

Assuming some 100 asylum seekers are fortunate enough to make it to the US or Canada, that will leave about 220 men in limbo. “Abandoned by Australia also means abandoned by PNG,” says Father Licini. “If they are abandoned in the street, these ‘negatives’, if they don’t go home, if they don’t give in to this Bomana pressure and torture – they will remain around here, but they are destined to death. It would be shameful for Australia, to be responsible…

“I mean, this would happen slowly, but that is what is going to happen. It makes no sense for Australia. With such a small number, with the money they are spending now to keep them here, taking them to Australia or letting them go to New Zealand would save lives and would save money.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 9, 2019 as "Risking life in limbo". Subscribe here.

Paddy Manning
is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly.