Manus Island – located in the far north-east of Papua New-Guinea (‘PNG’) – has frequently featured in the news over the past couple of weeks due to the closure of the detention facility located on the island. In a decision of the Supreme Court of PNG of April 2016, about which I wrote a blog post here, the Manus Island detention facility was deemed unconstitutional and illegal and henceforth had to be closed. It eventually took 1.5 years for the authorities to effectively close the detention facility: on 31 October 2017, the facility was formally closed and the provision of services in the facility ceased. On that date, the PNG military formally retook control over the site, which was to function as an active military base again.
The transition was anything but smooth, however. Approximately 400 of the 600 refugees and asylum seekers housed at the facility refused to transfer to alternative accommodation on Manus Island, citing arguably deplorable conditions at the alternative facilities as well as fears for their personal safety and integrity. As a result, these refugees and asylum seekers decided to lock themselves into the old detention facility in order to protect themselves against eviction and hostility from the local population. Eventually, PNG police and immigration officials raided the centre on 23 and 24 November and forcibly evicted a number of refugees and asylum seekers, after which those remaining decided to relocate as well. As various news reports detail, the weeks between the formal closure of the centre and the police raids were particularly marked by high levels of despair, an absolute lack of facilities and amenities, and a basic denial of human dignity.
It is my contention here that the chaotic closure of the facility showcases the level of geo-political manoeuvring of various countries that is involved in this context. Indeed, the exceptional situation where refugees and asylum seekers voluntarily lock themselves into a detention facility in order to secure a certain level of safety is the result of geo-political strategies not limited to PNG’s sovereignty. In this blog, I will briefly touch upon the key sovereign states involved and the way in which their geopolitics have influenced – if not shaped – the course of events.
The role of Australia as a key actor in the Manus Island detention facilities is undeniable. Under Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders policy framework, which has been in force since September 2013, all illegal maritime arrivals are intercepted off the coast of Australia and are brought to offshore processing facilities, i.e. Nauru Regional Processing Centre or Manus Island Regional Processing Centre. Anyone found to be a refugee will never be resettled in Australia, but will be resettled in PNG or a third nation. The main goal of this policy framework is deterrence: it is designed to deter other potential asylum seekers from arriving in Australia unauthorised by boat. The Australian government constructed and finances the offshore processing centres, contracts private contractors to operate the facilities, is heavily involved in their daily operation, and pays significant sums to the Nauruan and PNG governments to maintain the facilities. The latter countries formally run and operate the centres, host transferees and provide them with visas, assess their asylum claims and arrange resettlement, under their respective domestic laws. Throughout, Australia has maintained that PNG is responsible for the Manus Island detention facility and that Australia has a mere supporting role.
The closure of the facility shows how destructive this division between de jure and de facto control over the facility can be. With the withdrawal of all Australian officials and all contracted service providers, including medical staff, the refugees and asylum seekers at the Manus Island facility were left in a void where they were not provided with their basic needs whilst they simultaneously felt it was unsafe to leave to the PNG-run facilities elsewhere on the island. Determined to stick to its policy framework, Australia has maintained that these people will never be resettled in Australia and hence should either move to the PNG-run facilities, relocate to the Nauru processing facility, or go back to their home country. As documented, conditions at the PNG-run facilities and the Nauru processing facility are abhorrent, and refoulment back to the home country is – in many cases – not an option, in particular not for those recognised as refugees. Hence there seem to be few alternatives available for those on Manus Island, yet the Australian government vigorously sticks to its policy framework and has no intention of yielding. The deterrence of future arrivals is arguably deemed more important than the situation of those offshore.
The government of PNG received significant amounts of money in return for maintaining and assuming formal control over the processing facility on Manus Island. Its strategy in doing so hence seems to be one of preserving the national economy. With the April 2016 judgment of the PNG Supreme Court, however, the situation became legally untenable: whilst the Manus Island facility provided for an important part of the gross domestic product, it became clear that the policy would eventually have to be discontinued. As mentioned above, after an initial delay, this finally happened on 31 October 2017. Since the asylum seekers are formally processed by PNG and the refugees have been granted refugee status by the PNG government, PNG remains responsible for those at the facility although there seems to be a lack of capability and willingness in doing so. The alternative accommodation is substandard and the local population retains its reportedly hostile stance. There are also significant concerns about the extent to which PNG can successfully incorporate Muslim or gay refugees into the predominantly Christian communities on PNG whilst simultaneously maintaining these peoples’ safety and security. Since PNG accepted to host the facilities under the agreement with Australia and to process the asylum seekers, however, it cannot retreat from its responsibilities to protect those found to be refugees.
The United States
Under an Australian-US deal, negotiated by former US president Barack Obama, 1,250 refugees at the offshore detention facilities were to be resettled in the US in exchange for a group of refugees from Central America at detention facilities in Costa Rica being resettled in Australia. After taking office, current president Donald Trump labelled this refugee deal ‘stupid’ and ‘horrible’, yet eventually the deal did go ahead. A first round of extensive screening by US officials on both PNG and Nauru was concluded months ago, yet so far only a handful of refugees have been resettled in the United States. It is unclear how many refugees will eventually be resettled in the US, when this might happen, and who will be selected. This reluctance on behalf of the US has significantly increased the uncertainty of those remaining at the offshore facilities. For example, some refugees are afraid that resettlement in PNG or relocation from Manus to the Nauru facility might jeopardise their position and chances of being resettled in the United States. Others with family in Australia fear they will not be able to live with their spouse after resettlement. As one refugee puts it, the US deal is a political game designed to maintain calm in the camps.
In an attempt to provide humanitarian relief, New Zealand has involved itself in the situation by providing NZ$3 million to help look after the refugees who remain on Manus Island pending their resettlement. Moreover, it has offered to resettle 150 refugees from the offshore processing facilities. So far, the latter offer has consequently been turned down by, interestingly, the Australian government. Indeed, Australia argues that accepting an offer from New Zealand would undermine the deterrence goals of its Operation Sovereign Borders and has threatened New Zealand with diplomatic sanctions if it strikes a unilateral deal with PNG. This level of geo-political manoeuvring on behalf of Australia clearly reveals its paradoxical stance towards the offshore detention facilities once more: whilst it claims that the facilities and those processed therein are fully a matter of the governments of PNG and Nauru, it simultaneously significantly influences the way in which those governments subsequently deal with those processed under their jurisdictions. Australia hence does not shy away from exercising geo-political pressure over both PNG and New Zealand in an attempt to foster its own political agenda.
The geo-political manoeuvring of the various countries involved – guided by their own agendas and rationales – ultimately results in a dire mix for many of those processed offshore. They are left in limbo and appear to be used in the fostering of political agendas both domestically and far beyond PNG’s sovereign borders. Whether and where they will eventually find proper protection hence seems to depend on the geo-political ball game that unfortunately does not look like coming to a conclusion any time soon.