Australia urged to ensure protection, assistance and solutions for refugees on Manus Island

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Nai Jit Lam to whom quoted text may be attributed at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

The 'Regional Processing Centre' on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.   © UNHCR/Vlad Sokhin

Nai Jit Lam, UNHCR’s Deputy Regional Representative in Canberra, is on mission to Manus Island. He addressed today’s briefing in Geneva by phone. The following is a transcript of his remarks.

 

Background:

In October, UNHCR appealed to Australia to stop a humanitarian emergency unfolding on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, where the closure of a so-called Regional Processing Centre on 31 October and imminent discontinuation of critical services and support arrangements threaten safety and well-being of hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers who remain there in very difficult conditions.

Manus Island, along with Nauru have been the focus of Australia’s off-shore processing policy, introduced more than four years ago. Approximately 3,000 refugees and asylum-seekers have been forcibly transferred by Australia to ‘offshore processing’ facilities there since. Of these, some 1,200 remain in Nauru and 900 in Papua New Guinea.

Although UNHCR was not party to the recent Australia-United States’ relocation arrangement, UNHCR has helped facilitate the referrals of more than 1,200 refugees form Papua New Guinea and Nauru to the United States. To date, 54 refugees have departed for the US. Another 500 people are still waiting for the outcome of the refugee status determination processing being carried out by authorities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, under the Australian arrangement.


Nai Jit Lam, Deputy Regional representative, UNHCR, Australia:

I am currently on Manus Island right now. And I want to share a very quick update on the situation here. Exactly three weeks since the closure of the regional processing centre on 31 October the situation on the ground is very serious, and it is deteriorating by the day. 300 refugees and asylum seekers continue to remain in what is now the decommissioned processing centre. As they [the refugees and asylum seekers] refuse to be moved the standoff remains. The people that we have spoken to are extremely angry and they see this as an opportunity to tell the world and to show the world, years of anger about how they have been treated over the four years, after being forcibly transferred to Papua New Guinea.

Without distribution of food and clean water over the last three weeks, the situation is becoming quite difficult. We have seen today at the centre that there has been significant accumulation of waste and rubbish. Under the hot and humid weather, health and sanitation is becoming a very significant issue and can be quite concerning as well. The asylum seekers and refugees have received the last one month’s supply of regular medication which was dispensed by one of the former Australian contracted health providers. We have seen for ourselves, while visiting the former processing centre this week that people are increasingly, physically and mentally unwell. The lack of clean water; As you probably have seen, the refugees and asylum seekers have been digging wells. Together with the associated risk of disease this is becoming a major concern.

After three weeks and constant announcements that alternative accommodation outside the centre and together with the services are ready, what we have observed so far actually represents a very different picture. The accommodation outside of the former centre is still under construction. We were there and saw for ourselves that they are trying to complete the site as quickly as possible. But the fact remains that major work is still in progress and might take a couple of weeks before completion. 

Beyond the physical accommodation that we have been talking about, the most basic services needed for asylum seekers and refugees are still not adequately provided for outside the centre. We have mentioned earlier and it is still the case that where you have medical care, mental health and psycho-social support which is so important for some of the most vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers who have suffered under this Australian offshore policy… It does not look like these have been in place outside the centre at the moment as well.

We observed that initially four caseworkers were planned to look after over 700 individuals’ wellbeing. From what we have observed firsthand, none are operating as of today. And this is due to local contractual disputes among people here as well. So it is quite concerning that it is still not up and running. The other concerning issues that we have observed are regarding security and the lack of interpreters on the Island, that brings about the issue of how they would communicate with local people or even the police as well. That remains a concern.

Local community tensions still remain. In fact, in the last three to four days, there were two incidents reported. When we talked to people in the new accommodation site, one of the [security incidents] was in the middle of the night: Someone from the local village came and switched off the generator because it was too noisy. Yesterday there was a blockade of a road by local people at the main site of what we call West Lorengau Haus inside the accommodation in the community. So there is a lot of tension and a lot of anxiety and fear as well of what is happening. And that’s hasn’t been resolved. 

UNHCR has been maintaining a constant presence on the ground since before 31 October. In fact, I was here before the 31st and this is my second mission, while my colleagues and key members are doing so on a rotational basis to keep a continued presence here to monitor the situation. And like I said, this is becoming quite concerning because nothing has effectively changed very much and the stand-off continues as well.

What we have been dealing with right now are the consequences of the problem that was created four years ago, when Australia forcibly transferred people, refugees and asylum seekers to PNG and Nauru under their offshore policy. What we want to say right now and what we are calling for is that Australia must take responsibility, continue to take responsibility and play an active role in achieving solutions. Australia must take responsibility for the protection, assistance and solutions for the refugees here on Manus Island.

Additional notes on UNHCR’s position:

1 - Australia remains responsible for the refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island 


After three weeks without distribution of food and water or essential services including medical care, the situation for the people at the former regional processing centre is desperate. Outside of the former Centre, conditions and services are also profoundly inadequate. It is vital that Australia take responsibility and play an active role in achieving solutions for all the people Australia forcibly transferred to Papua New Guinea. This is a man-made and entirely preventable humanitarian crisis. It is a damning indictment of a policy meant to avoid Australia’s international obligations. 

2 - Efforts must be in place to prevent violence 

UNHCR reiterates its call to both Australia and Papua New Guinea to ensure the situation on Manus Island is resolved peacefully. UNHCR encourages the Australian and PNG authorities to engage in constructive dialogue with the remaining refugees and asylum-seekers at the former processing center. UNHCR is on the ground and in regular communication with the refugees and the PNG national and local authorities, and stands ready to support all efforts. Ultimately, however, the Australian government must do more to obtain lasting and safe solutions for people who have suffered immense harm under its approach throughout the past four years. 

3 - UNHCR advocates for long-term solutions 

Australia has in effect created and then abandoned a humanitarian crisis at the doorstep of the international community. UNHCR – in carrying out its global protection mandate for refugees – is committed to working with the PNG government, other UN agencies, and NGOs to find ways to meet immediate needs on the ground and work to prevent loss of life and additional harm.

UNHCR is grateful to other States in the region and beyond for their humanitarian gestures and concrete efforts to offer assistance and real solutions for this group of traumatized and vulnerable human beings. Establishing interim care for these refugees and asylum-seekers, and finding lasting solutions for them outside of Papua New Guinea, are now the most critical priorities. UNHCR urges States to continue their engagement with Australia and the PNG government and to advocate to bring an end to the human suffering.

 
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