Manus Island asylum seekers score fresh chance for freedom


Almost three years after it was ruled that the detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island was unconstitutional a group of lawyers acting on behalf of the men are claiming they are still being detained unlawfully.

In 2016, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled that the detention of asylum seekers on the island was unconstitutional.

Now, a group of lawyers acting on behalf of the 550 asylum seekers and refugees trapped on Manus Island are claiming they are still being detained unlawfully and will this week launch a fresh legal bid in the country’s highest court, aimed at getting the men off the island.

The Manus Island processing centre at Papua New Guinea’s Lombrum Naval Base was closed in November 2017 after the PNG Supreme Court ruling.

But despite this, hundreds of asylum seekers still remain living in compounds on the island. 

The men, many of who are without travel documents, need to request permission to leave the island and must abide by a curfew which states they must return to the compound, where they were moved following the closure, by 6pm and not leave again until after 6am.

Australian barrister Greg Barns, who is advising the PNG legal team on the action, said they are demanding that if the court rules in favour of the men, the PNG government works with them to provide them with travel documents and have them resettled in a safe third country.

“My colleagues in PNG are going to be filing applications to effectively have the court reexamine what it looked at in 2016 and say well, look, this is still a form of detention and therefore it’s unlawful,” Mr Barns told SBS News.

“If you subject people to a curfew and say they can only leave the island with permission, that effectively amounts to detention because people don’t have free movement.”

He said some of the 550 applications had already been submitted, and the remaining applications were being submitted to the courts “as we speak”.

The 2016 decision found that the “asylum seekers or transferees brought to Papua New Guinea by the Australian government and detained at the relocation centre on Manus Island” were detained in “contrary to their constitutional right of personal liberty” set out in section 42 of the PNG constitution.

Australian visa
Australia's offshore detention centres.
SBS News

“Both the Australian and Papua New Guinea governments shall forthwith take all steps necessary to cease and prevent the continued unconstitutional and illegal detention of the asylum seekers on Manus Island,” the judgement reads.

Mr Barns said PNG had jurisdiction over the men and pointed to human rights clauses within their constitution.

“The PNG constitution has a number of human rights contained within it, and sadly Australia does not have human rights legislation,” Mr Barns said.

A spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, which has been involved in the Papua New Guinea court challenges, told SBS News they were "very concerned" about getting orders from the court to the PNG government.

"What we are really asking for is resettlement arrangements, for the PNG government to make arrangements for people to be safely resettled in countries including Australia," they said. 

Manus Island offshore detention centre
Men at the Manus Island detention centre.

"They have been taken from the Lombrum Naval Base and moved to three compounds closer to the Lorengau settlement but they effectively remained detained.

"Everyday they are being detained is one more day that their freedom is being denied to them and that is the ultimate thing we are trying to deal with."

A 2018 report from Amnesty International and the Refugee Council of Australia, titled Until When? The Forgotten Men on Manus Island, found that since the Manus Island processing centre closed down, the refugees and asylum seekers had "broken down" and were experiencing poor mental and physical health.

Following the submission of the remaining applications, a hearing is expected to take place within months.

The Minister for Home Affairs has been contacted for comment.

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