Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a country of over seven million people located to Australia’s north. It cooperated with Australia to process the claims of asylum seekers intercepted at sea. Manus Province, one of the smallest of PNG’s 22 provincial divisions, hosted the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre (Manus Island RPC). The Manus Island RPC was first established in 2001 as part of the Pacific Solution and closed on 31 October 2017.

In September 2012, Australia and PNG signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) providing for the transfer of asylum seekers from Australia to PNG. Processing began in November 2012. In July 2013, the two countries entered into the Regional Resettlement Arrangement (RRA), an overarching framework that provides for the processing of asylum claims and permanent resettlement of refugees in PNG. The RRA is supported by a second MoU signed in August 2013, which superseded the 2012 MoU. Under the RRA, asylum seekers intercepted at sea by Australian officials were transferred to PNG and accommodated at the Manus Island RPC. The RRA was paid for entirely by Australia.

The Manus Island RPC experienced ongoing unrest. In February 2014, Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati was killed during a riot. Mr Barati sought asylum in Australia in July 2013 but was transferred to PNG under the bilateral agreement. Two men were convicted in PNG’s Supreme Court of killing Mr Barati and were sentenced to 10 years in jail. In 2017, on Good Friday, there was an armed attack on the centre by PNG military personnel.

There were also allegations of inappropriate medical care, which arose after the deaths of two men at the Manus Island RPC. In August 2014 Hamid Khazaei died after contracting an infection. An inquest into his death found it was preventable and had followed a series of medical errors and delays. In December 2016 Faysal Ishad Ahmed, who had repeatedly sought medical help for his health issues, died after collapsing. An inquest into his death is expected.

International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) temporarily withdrew their services in March 2017 after it was revealed some of their practitioners were unlicensed. Paradise, a PNG company, replaced IHMS, providing a more limited range of medical services, until IHMS returned.

In February 2015, a class action was brought in the Supreme Court of Victoria on behalf of people detained at the Manus Island RPC. The class action claimed compensation from the Australian Government and the then operators of the Manus Island RPC, G4S and Transfield Services, for failure to take reasonable care of detainees between 2012 and 2014. The claim was amended in 2016 to include an allegation of false detention of those held within the centre between 2012 and 2016. The Australian Government agreed to settle the class action for $70 million plus costs on 14 June 2017. The settlement was approved on 6 September 2017. 

In April 2016, the PNG Supreme Court ruled that the detention of asylum seekers at the Manus Island RPC was illegal and unconstitutional. The Court held that the detention of asylum seekers was contrary to their right of personal liberty enshrined in section 42 of the Constitution of PNG. The Court ordered the governments of Australia and PNG to take all necessary steps to cease and prevent the detention of asylum seekers at the centre. 

In compliance with the order, the Manus Island RPC became an ‘open centre’ in May 2016. Entry and exit was permitted, including visits to the main town centre and an option to stay at an immigration-run transit centre overnight. The Australian and PNG Governments committed to fully closing the centre by 31 October 2017.

The closure of sections of the Manus Island RPC began in June 2017. Men were progressively transferred to alternative accommodation; the existing East Lorengau Refugee Transit Centre and the new West Lorengau Haus and Hillside Haus. On the official closure date of 31 October 2017, essential services such as power and water were turned off, and staff and service providers, including those providing food and medical assistance, exited the centre. Over 600 refugees initially refused to move, in protest over the length of time they have been held on Manus Island. This number reduced to 328 by 24 November, at which time they were forcibly moved. Some of the alternative accommodation was reportedly still under construction during the transfers. In November 2018, the Refugee Council of Australia and Amnesty released a report outlining the poor conditions in these accommodation facilities and continuing restrictions on the movements of refugees and people seeking asylum living there.

At 21 October 2018, there were 626 refugees and people seeking asylum on Manus Island. One Iranian refugee and former Manus Island RPC resident fled PNG for Fiji in January 2017. He intended to claim asylum in Fiji, but was returned to PNG prior to submitting an application. On his return to PNG, he was charged with falsifying passport documents.

In November 2016 it was announced that a deal had been made with the United States to resettle people in detention on Nauru and Manus Island. As at 21 October 2018, 146 refugees had been resettled in the US from Manus Island. Refugees not offered a US resettlement place will continue to be offered a resettlement place in PNG or Cambodia. Failed asylum seekers will be expected to return to their home country.

In April 2017, after a 7-month inquiry, the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs released a report on the allegations of abuse, self-harm and neglect in the Nauru and Manus Island RPCs. The report made 12 recommendations, including commissioning independent reviews on medical transfer procedures and on the impact of detention on physical and mental health. Since the closure of the Manus Island RPC, access to medical care has become more limited and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has called for the evacuation of refugees and people seeking asylum to Australia.

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Last updated 23 November 2018