Senate motion fails as forced deportation fear grips Manus Island asylum seekers

Manus Island police on patrol Source: Stefan Armbruster SBS

Rejected asylum seekers on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea say they are gripped by fear at night that police will mount raids to forcibly deport them back to their countries.

A Greens Senate motion on Tuesday highlighting the UNHCR’s concerns over forced deportations from Manus Island has been defeated by 49 to eight votes.

On Tuesday evening, according to ABC, contractors had arrived on Manus Island to begin the 'extreme vetting' of refugees to see if they would be eligible under Australia's resettlement deal with the US. The interviews had previously been postponed following US President Donald Trump's executive order on immigration.

Last week the UNHCR warned of a “very real risk of returning people to danger” after a Nepalese man was detained on Manus Island and then flown out of the country.

A second Nepalese man eluded PNG police during the same early morning raid within the Australian-run offshore processing centre.

“So now people fear. It’s really bad right now,” Sohag, a Bangladeshi man being held on Manus Island, told SBS News.

“Now all people are scared. They call the police, one o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock in the night. They come and take people, take them back to their country.”

The Australian-run detention centre was declared illegal and unconstitutional by PNG’s Supreme Court 10 months ago, with the court ruling it must be shut down.

PNG is preparing to initially deport up to 60 men of about 168 rejected for asylum.

Those from Nepal, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Lebanon are expected to be deported first.

There are also failed applications by men from Iraq, Burma, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Somalia.

A large number are Iranians, but Iran does not accept the forced return of its citizens from overseas.

Sohag said during often very short interviews with immigration officials, the asylum seekers were offered money and access to embassy officials to arrange a passport.

“They said no (to my asylum application), ‘You go back to your country, we give you a package, give you some money’,” he said.

“She (the interviewer) said,  I give you US$20,000 and you go home.

“I am not safe that’s why I come in here, but she said, ‘Go back to your country’.”

Senate motion

Greens senator Nick McKim’s motion cited advice from professor Jane McAdam of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales.

“Papua New Guinea’s refugee status determination process is inconsistent with international law in a number of significant respects,” it said.

“There is a serious risk that the forcible removal of an asylum seeker from Papua New Guinea may violate international law.

“That the Senate agrees that the Papua New Guinea refugee status determination process is inconsistent with international law, and opposes the forced deportation from Papua New Guinea of people who have sought asylum in Australia.”

Assistant minister to the prime minister, senator James McGrath, told the Senate: “Immigration matters in Papua New Guinea are a matter for the Papua New Guinea government."

"We have consistently said those found not to be owed protection should be returned to their home country.

"This is in accordance with normal international practice.”

Last week the UNHCR's regional external relations officer Catherine Stubberfield responded to the news that PNG had deported the Nepalese national and was preparing to send back more asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected.

"UNHCR has particularly voiced its concerns that asylum seekers may not have been able to engage in this process for a range of valid reasons, and particularly given serious mental health concerns," she said.

"Any deportations prior to a thorough, appropriate review would run a very real risk of returning people to danger."

Asylum seekers receive 'negative' assessments from PNG immigration if they do not convince authorities that they face a 'well-founded fear of persecution'.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection's monthly statistics for January said there are '689 refugees who have been given a positive final determination' and '225 failed asylum seekers who have been given a negative final determination' on Manus Island.

For the recognised refugees, uncertainty continues over the US refugee deal.

Pressure continues to be applied on the Trump administration over the arrangement Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull struck with former US president Barak Obama.

Senior Republican senator Charles Grassley, chair of the US Senate Judiciary Committee, has been a vocal critic and tweeted to the White House on Sunday:

On Monday, a petition was lodged with the International Criminal Court claiming Australia’s off-shore detention system could be a “crime against humanity committed by individuals and corporate actors”.

Global Legal Action Network (Glan) and the Stanford International Human Rights Clinic have named the Australian government and contractors Ferrovial, Wilson Security and International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) in the court petition.

In response, the office of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told Fairfax Media, "We are not going to comment on a publicity stunt".

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