Australia and Papua New Guinea at loggerheads over fate of asylum seekers
SYDNEY – Lawyers for 850 asylum seekers held in a controversial detention centre in Papua New Guinea said on Friday they planned to seek potentially billions of dollars in compensation, as Australian officials prepared to travel to PNG for emergency talks.
PNG this week announced the closure of the detention centre it operates on behalf of Australia, which has pursued a hardline immigration policy criticised by the United Nations and international human rights organisation.
The issue has the two South Pacific neighbours at loggerheads, with each saying responsibility for the detainees’ welfare rests with the other.
The closure of the Manus Island facility, which holds refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East, Afghanistan and South Asia, is a major headache for Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the middle of a general election campaign.
The number of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia is small compared with those arriving in Europe, but border security has long been a major political issue and will likely feature again in campaigning for the July elections.
Lawyers for former PNG opposition leader Belden Namah are asking the PNG Supreme Court, whose ruling that the facility was unconstitutional prompted the government’s decision to close it, to force Canberra to take the detainees to Australia.
PNG-based lawyer Ben Lomai, who represents more than 300 of the detained men, told the Post Courier newspaper that he would file a compensation case on Monday after the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“We can go straight to assessing reasonable compensation without having to prolong the case any further,” Lomai said.
Successive Australian governments have steadfastly said that people who attempt the dangerous sea crossing will never be allowed to settle in Australia. On Thursday, Turnbull warned against being “misty-eyed” over immigration, saying his government’s policies had prevented thousands of deaths at sea.
PNG’s High Commissioner to Australia, Charles Lepani, said on Thursday responsibility for what to do with the men rested with Canberra. Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton suggested one option was to transfer them to another facility on tiny Nauru, another South Pacific island.
Nauru already houses about 500 people and has been similarly criticised for harsh conditions and reports of systematic child abuse. A 23-year-old man from Iran set himself on fire at the centre this week in protest against his treatment. Broadspectrum Ltd, which runs the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, declined to comment. -Reuters