(Sydney) –Papua New Guinea (PNG) has been arbitrarily detaining rejected asylum seekers virtually incommunicado in the Bomana Immigration Centre, raising serious concerns about their health and safety, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today. The men should be freed.
In August 2019, the PNG government transferred more than 50 rejected asylum seekers from Port Moresby housing to the Australian-funded Bomana Immigration Centre on the outskirts of Port Moresby. There are now understood to be 46 men remaining in Bomana.
“The men in Bomana Immigration Centre are being treated like criminals, but they’ve committed no crime,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Restrictions imposed on the men in Bomana Immigration Centre are worse than prison – at least in prison you can be in contact with your loved ones and your lawyer, but these men have no contact with the outside world.”
“The abuses these vulnerable men have undoubtedly suffered over the past two months can’t continue and they must be urgently released,” Amnesty International Australia Refugee Advisor Dr. Graham Thom said.
Refugee advocates reported that detainees at the Bomana Immigration Centre have no access to phones or the internet, unless they have agreed to assisted voluntary return. In those cases, they are allowed a maximum of 15 minutes to call their families in their home countries or to arrange travel documents with home country authorities.
Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist and refugee in Port Moresby who has seen some of the detainees, told Human Rights Watch that some of the men detained in Bomana have lost significant amounts of weight, “their bodies are weak, the faces are just like bones, they seem physically and mentally damaged.”
Nearly all are from Iran, which does not accept forcible returns of rejected asylum seekers. Authorities forced the men to surrender mobile phones and medication when they entered Bomana. They are unable to communicate with their families, friends, lawyers, or doctors and psychologists who were previously assisting them. Many have mental health conditions or a physical illness, yet as reliable sources have confirmed, PNG authorities have told them they will not be released unless they “volunteer” to return home.
There are currently 262 current and former asylum seekers who had been sent to Manus Island under Australia’s offshore processing regime. The majority now have refugee status and most were transferred to accommodation in Port Moresby, where they fear for their safety.
The PNG government has rejected the refugee claims of the men detained at Bomana, yet PNG’s refugee status determination process falls far short of international standards.
Several of the men now detained in Bomana withdrew their asylum applications for various reasons, including after the 2014 riots at the Manus detention center in which Iranian Reza Berati was beaten to death and dozens more wounded. Their cases were then administratively closed without a refugee status determination on the merits.
PNG, as a party to the Convention against Torture, is obligated not to return someone to a country “where there are substantial grounds for believing that [they] would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”
Under international law, all detainees, including irregular migrants, have the right to challenge their detention, along with the right to legal assistance, and to be informed of that right. Rejected asylum seekers in Bomana are detained in the absence of any individualized assessment of the need for detention, and with no consideration whether their removal – mostly to Iran – can be effected within a reasonable and foreseeable time frame. Further, it would appear there is no framework in PNG law for their detention. There are no clear means to seek review of the lawfulness of their detention or for monitoring and evaluating the conditions of detention, including access to communication with family or lawyers. The result is arbitrary detention prohibited by customary international law and treaties to which both Australia and PNG are party.
UNHCR has appealed for all refugees and asylum seekers to be immediately brought from PNG and Nauru – the other county to which Australia has transferred those arriving by boat seeking asylum – to safety. In the interim, the PNG government should allow all detainees at Bomana access to visitors and external communications and provide adequate access to food and medical care.
“Australia shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the suffering of people warehoused offshore,” Thom said. “PNG needs to act immediately to end the men’s arbitrary detention and ensure they can access the medical treatment they desperately need.”
“It’s hard not to conclude that the cruel conditions at Bomana are a deliberate ploy to make people miserable so they accept to ‘voluntarily’ return to their home countries,” Pearson said. “If the PNG government is unable to deport these men, it should release them.”