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Australia holds refugees in Papua New Guinea for ten years

In a climate of escalating violence and fear in Port Moresby, 52 asylum seekers – the tail end of the illegal regime – want their suffering to stop.

Nurul Chawdury with his family in Port Moresby, waiting for resettlement in New Zealand.

Photograph: Godfree Kaptigau/The Guardian

Ben Doherty

Sat 16 Mar 2024 19.00 EDT

“I still hope for a bright future, I still hope to go to a country where I can be free, I still hope for a good life for my family.”

After a decade, Nurul Chawdury still has hope. As he reasons, it’s all he can hold on to.

More than a decade after being forcibly removed to Papua New Guinea by Australia, Chawdury is still there, one of the last remaining cohort who make up the unhappy ragged tail of Australia’s illegal offshore detention regime in that country.

Chawdury arrived in Australia by boat in 2013, fleeing the violence of partisan politics in his native Bangladesh. His membership of a political party made his life unsafe and he sought sanctuary in the first refugee convention country he reached.

But Chawdury spent just days in Australia before he was exiled to detention on Manus Island. He was told it would be temporary, a stopgap while his claim was assessed and a resettlement place found.

“We were told we would be there only for a short time. But we had an interview and then we just wait … we wait one year, one-and-a-half year, and still no answer,’ Chawdury says.

“We were imprisoned. My mental state was horrible – it was beyond description – and physically there were no doctors, no medical treatment. If we were ill, we were just ill, there was no help for us.”

Chawdury’s claim for refugee protection was swiftly recognised. Australia was legally obliged to protect him. Despite this, Chawdury would spend more than six years on Manus before being moved to Lorengau, then to Port Moresby.

Chawdury has watched fellow refugees die through murder, medical neglect or suicide, or abandon their protection claims to take their chances in a dangerous homeland. Others have left for new lives in Australia, the US, Canada and New Zealand.

But he still waits.

‘Some days we eat, some days we don’t’

In 2020, assured his resettlement was proceeding, he was joined by his family from Bangladesh, his wife and a daughter whom he had known only as a baby. Another child followed.

“When they first came, I was very happy to see my family, but they couldn’t go anywhere and we have just been waiting since that time. Nothing has changed.”

Chawdury landed a job at a supermarket – work that gave him purpose and a place in his community, and that allowed him to provide for his young family. But that ended suddenly in January when riots erupted across Port Moresby.

Chawdury has the CCTV footage of rioters forcing opening the security doors to his shop before flooding in, stripping the shelves bare and destroying the building. He was caught in the middle of the mob, powerless to stop it.

“Every time I close my eyes, I see them attacking me, I think I am surrounded by them, every time I close my eyes,” he says.

A life on the fringes has retreated further.

His daughter is not able to attend school – she does not have the right documents, he says, and cannot obtain them – and she needs medical attention that she is rarely able to obtain. Often, they have been turned away from hospital.

His wife suffered a miscarriage at three months but was refused hospital treatment despite what Chawdury says was excruciating pain, until he begged a senior official to assist.

Chawdury says his family does not feel safe.

“In Port Moresby, my family went out twice and twice they were attacked, their bags were snatched.

“So my family just stays in the room all day, every day. I go out … but they never do. They just stay.”

Without work, and with the Australian money that was supposed to support refugees exhausted, Chawdury’s family’s existence is increasingly precarious.

“Things are very bad at the moment, it is very hard. Some days we eat, some days we don’t eat,” he says.

“Because immigration has cut off all services, we have nothing besides this place to stay … we have no money for food or for transportation … and then there is no medical help for my family: if a person gets sick in the family, they will not treat them.

“In the meantime, if the landlord comes and gives us eviction notice again … we will be on the streets.”

Secret deal with PNG

Since the Manus Island detention centre was ruled unlawful by the PNG supreme court in 2016, Australia has tried to push legal responsibility for the remaining refugees and asylum seekers on to PNG.

In December 2021, the Morrison government signed a secret deal with PNG to fund the welfare and support of those sent offshore by Australia.

The Albanese government has refused to reveal its detail: a freedom of information request was denied because the information “could reasonably be expected to cause damage to the Australian government’s international relations”. The money – however much it was – came from Australia’s $303m irregular maritime arrival “offshore management” budget.

A Department of Home Affairs spokesperson says: “The department does not have any role in the ongoing management of, or service delivery arrangements for, individuals remaining in PNG.”

The spokesperson says it is the responsibility of the PNG government to “independently manage individuals remaining in PNG on a permanent or temporary pathway”.

“Individuals in PNG have resettlement pathways, including the United States, New Zealand and Canada, or permanent settlement in PNG.”

The department refuses to say how many of the nearly 1,400 people Australia sent to PNG remain there.

Guardian Australia understands there are 52, as well as a number of their wives and partners, and 28 children. Four want to stay in PNG, three are within the “process” of moving to the US, 19 to New Zealand and seven to Canada. But nearly two dozen have no “pathway” to resettlement.

Australia’s claim that those remaining are the responsibility of the PNG government is not supported by international law.

The United Nations high commissioner for refugees has repeatedly told Australia it “remains jointly responsible” with PNG for their treatment and welfare.

Madeline Gleeson, a senior research fellow at the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales Sydney, says secrecy around the terms of Australia’s agreement with PNG makes it hard to determine the legality of Australia withdrawing care from the men left there. But she says the original agreement – the basis on which the men were sent to PNG – required commitments from both countries about resettlement.

“Australia cannot simply ‘contract out’ of its obligations by paying another country to do what it should be doing itself, particularly given it was well aware of the limitations of PNG’s refugee settlement capacity when it made the secret agreement,” Gleeson says.

Australia maintains it paid the PNG government all the required money to manage the refugee cohort during the 2021-22 financial year, to allow PNG to manage its budget over subsequent years.

But the money ran out months ago, and Australia has consistently said it will not pay any more.

Last year a whistleblower from within PNG’s immigration authority alleged the Australian-sponsored program to care for refugees exiled to PNG had been riven by corruption, fraud and nepotism, and that all the money “has been depleted or gone missing”.

The PNG government announced an investigation and the then chief migration officer, Stanis Hulahau, said the allegations were “false” and without evidence. He said Australia should pay further money because the rate of resettlement to third countries had been slowed by Covid. Hulahau has since resigned.

‘Climate of violence and fear’

Heidi Abdel-Raouf, a spokesperson for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, says refugees in PNG have frequently experienced discrimination, violence and theft, but now their situation was even worse.

“Since the recent deaths, riots and shootings in Port Moresby, the climate of violence and fear has grown more severe,” she says.

Many are suffering “severe anxiety, depression, PTSD, psychosis and self-harm”.

“For some the risk of suicide is chronically high and unpredictable,” Abdel-Raouf says.

“A small group are acutely mentally unwell and unable to care for themselves or consent to receive support of any kind. Without electricity, food and medical care they are terrified, paranoid, frail, living in squalor and unable to communicate coherently.”

Abdel-Raouf says Australia could not “continue to abdicate responsibility for this cohort” and should evacuate all those who want to leave.

Chawdury was interviewed for resettlement in New Zealand months ago but has heard nothing since.

“I’m still hopeful for resettlement in a safe country, I have to hope, for my family,” he says.

“But the wait is too long, and each day is too hard. I want to request Australia not to make us suffer any more in this place, to take us away from this place so that this suffering could stop.”

© 2024 Guardian News & Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. (dcr)


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