Refugees formerly held on Manus Island have been robbed at gunpoint in Port Moresby. With Covid-19 cases rising in Papua New Guinea, advocates fear for these men and the others still awaiting resettlement after years in detention. By Rebekah Holt.

Asylum seekers attacked in Port Moresby

Stilt houses in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea.
Stilt houses in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea.
Credit: Gail Hampshire / Flickr

The men came about 4am, between six and eight of them, allegedly armed with guns. It was April 21, and the streets of Port Moresby were quiet. The Papua New Guinean capital has been under new Covid-19 restrictions for four weeks. About 15 asylum seekers housed in three rooms at a hotel (rented by the PNG government under agreement with the Australian government) say they were held at gunpoint by these men – their phones, laptops, clothing, cash and other electronics taken during a terrifying robbery.

Father Giorgio Licini, a Catholic minister and community leader in Port Moresby, has confirmed to The Saturday Paper reports of the April 21 attack at the Citi Apartments. This is not the first attack these men have faced in the eight years they have been indefinitely detained in PNG. But one refugee, D, who spoke on condition of anonymity, is concerned the 132 asylum seekers who remain in PNG after the closure of the Australia’s Manus Island detention centre now face increased risk during the capital’s current restrictions.

D wasn’t staying in the rooms in which the attacks took place, but he went there directly afterwards. These hotels are where the refugees who originally sought asylum in Australia nearly a decade ago now live. They were moved to the capital after a PNG court ruled in 2016 that their detention in Australia’s offshore processing centre on Manus Island was “illegal” and “unconstitutional”.

The men who were attacked last week are among those who were imprisoned at the Australian-built Bomana detention centre from August 2019, after about 200 refugees were transferred to Port Moresby from Manus Island, according to D. He says that the six-month period in Bomana irretrievably damaged the health of men who were already unwell from detention on Manus Island.

“In some cases, people lost 30 kilograms when they were in there,” he says. “We had people who went in [to Bomana] 120 kilograms and they came out 80 kilograms. That’s what this place did to them and that’s besides the psychological side of [what] happened to them.”

Now without phones, D says the men who were attacked are cut off from family and supporters.

“I went [and] spoke to one of the guys who was beaten up by the gang,” he says. “He resisted because his whole life is his phone because this is how he talks to his family and [now] they have taken everything away from him.”

After the attack there was no significant help offered by PNG authorities or the organisations contracted by the Australian government to provide services to asylum seekers, according to D. “I haven’t seen any changes in security in particular or any assistance from JDA towards the individuals who lost their property,” he says.

JDA, a private contractor with a somewhat chequered history, has a contract to help the asylum seekers settle and access health and other services in PNG. The company does not deal with security matters, according to the asylum seekers.

“There is no security contractor in place,” D says. “Each place [where we live] has its own security. So when I refer to security, I mean the security guards hired by each hotel.”

D has questions about how the gang gained access to the men’s rooms, how they were able to get past hotel security. But he says the men who were attacked were far too compromised – mentally and physically – to advocate for themselves or even effectively lay any complaint with local officials or hotel management.

“This incident was very unusual … it wasn’t like a small thing where people get drunk or anything like many incidents we have here. It wasn’t small or local,” he says. “This one was professional … they come with guns. The people who do this are smart and professional, and professional people don’t risk their lives to come after a couple of thousand kina, that doesn’t make sense.”

D says PNG police attended the hotel after the attack.

Father Giorgio, the general secretary of Catholic Bishops conference of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, has been working in PNG since 2003. He says the men living in these hotels are in an incredibly precarious position.

“They survive because they are provided food and shelter,” he says. “But should the government support be withdrawn, these people left behind here, they would be dead.”

Father Giorgio is blunt in his assessment of Australia’s responsibilities to these men.

“It has to end now, it is eight years … It is time to close this chapter,” he says.

He is particularly concerned for the men who will be left without options after settlement places in the United States or Canada run out. He believes 60 or 70 asylum seekers will be left without anywhere to go.

“For that number, there is no way out of Papua New Guinea,” he says. “Perhaps half of them … have very weak psychological strength now, poor English, advanced age and other health issues … When Australia withdraws their board and lodging, their support, they will be in the streets … and they will die in the streets of Port Moresby.”

On the possibility of resettlement in New Zealand, Father Giorgio isn’t hopeful.

“Australia will not approve a large number to resettle in NZ,” he says. “It may close an eye on one case like Behrouz [Boochani] but they will not send a big number because it contradicts their policies on immigration. When Australia withdraws in one way or another, the PNG government will not look after these people anymore ... PNG government and people are not mistreating anyone in principle, but it is unrealistic to think there will be any particular assistance.”

Talking exclusively to The Saturday Paper, Father Giorgio tentatively raises a new possibility for resettlement that has emerged through church channels.

“We discussed an option last year for some to go to Italy, then Covid-19 blocked that very thing but with an exchange of emails in the last few days apparently that could be revived so there could be a group going to Italy … not just from PNG, perhaps Nauru or even Australia.”

The Saturday Paper understands these discussions are in early and informal stages through Catholic Church channels.

With the number of refugees in PNG having steadily decreased to the lowest number in years, Father Giorgio points to the next Australian election as a natural point to end the regime of indefinite offshore detention.

“We thought it was going to end at the last elections, but it didn’t,” he says. “It is time to close this chapter ... A developed country, a rich country that can spend billions on border protection, should not reduce people to this level of misery ... marginalisation and humiliation … Several of them are ruined for life. Some will recover, some will get out, but some are literally destroyed, and 14 we know are dead on Manus and Nauru.

“Money is not a problem, billions are being spent already – with that money they could have addressed the problem much more directly without destroying people.”

After eight years caught up in Australia’s detention regime, D says he wouldn’t come to Australia for resettlement now, even if it was on offer.

“Who would like to come [to Australia] and go to detention again?” he says. “Personally, I am just looking forward to getting my freedom somewhere else. I don’t want to come to Australia under any circumstances and that doesn’t mean I don’t like Australians ... but look at the guys they took there [under the medevac bill] based on their medical condition but they are still in detention and why would I put myself in there again?

“A lot of our guys are confused about what exactly the Australian government wants from us. They made an example, they achieved whatever they wanted, but what else is the value? There is no value from us, they are misspending money to enrich some companies here, that is all they are doing.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 1, 2021 as "Asylum seekers attacked in Port Moresby".

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Rebekah Holt is a Melbourne-based journalist who covers immigration and politics for the Australian and New Zealand media.

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