Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Opinion

Australia’s abandoned refugees: nine years of exile in offshore purgatory

The Australian government banished more than 100 refugees to Papua New Guinea instead of allowing them to build new lives. Will they be forgotten there?

Shaminda Kanapathi
3 June 2021, 6.00am
A scene from Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
Marc Dozier/Hemis/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Many believe Australia’s offshore disaster in Manus Island and Nauru is over and all imprisoned refugees are now in safe countries. Nothing is further from the truth. According to official statistics there are 130 people still being held in Papua New Guinea’s capital Port Moresby and 110 people still being held in Nauru.

These are the last of the refugees banished eight years ago from Christmas Island to PNG under the 19 July 2013 policy, signed off by the prime ministers of both PNG and Australia. The former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd and his Labour government imposed this inhumane policy to ‘stop the boats’, to deter those who flee from their home countries to avoid persecution. Rudd’s original policy included an ambiguous intention to resettle ‘genuine’ refugees, but he lost power shortly thereafter and subsequent leaders – including Tony Abbot, Malcolm Turnbull, Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison – have all chosen to take cruelty towards innocent refugees to a whole new level.

I was one of those people who, along with women, men, unaccompanied minors, and families, was sent to PNG and Nauru. I ended up on Manus Island in PNG, where my imprisonment and torture were used to send a message to the others desperately waiting in Indonesia to take the long journey across the sea to seek Australia’s help.

So far 14 innocent refugees have died under this inhumane policy. I saw some of them die. Some of them were my friends. I witnessed how neither government took accountability for these deaths from medical neglect, mental trauma, and physical violence. Families and loved ones of the dead were denied transparency and closure, and they continue to suffer with their fragmented memories.

We continue to suffer today – these scars are deep and don’t just go away.

As refugees in the camps we faced enormous suffering, all of which was unnecessarily imposed and vindictive. Under such systematic torture it was hard not to lose hope. It was a struggle sometimes to stay alive. We continue to suffer today – these scars are deep and don’t just go away.

Close to 300 people who were originally held on Manus and Nauru are now in Australia. This is due to the now repealed Medevac Law, which transferred people in desperate need of medical treatment. So far 929 people, 419 from Manus and 391 from Nauru, have been resettled in the US as part of the Australia-United States Resettlement Arrangement, and a significant number of others have been resettled in other counties.

When those who remained were moved to Port Moresby in September 2019, we were fearful. We overcame some of this hardship thinking that the Port Moresby move would reduce our suffering and give us some freedom, but it only increased our anguish. At the time I was still hopeful of resettlement in Canada through the community support visa programme. The US had rejected me as it had many other Sri Lankans. It was not until 4 December 2020 that I was finally resettled in a third country. Until then I was always at risk in Port Moresby, a dangerous city where we had no assurance for our safety. Anything could happen at any time. Every single day.

Seeking asylum during a pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic completely stopped the way everything functioned around the world, putting almost every country in a dreadful situation. PNG was not exempted from this fate, and the government struggled to look after its own citizens. The lives of people seeking asylum became even harder during the pandemic. In PNG, most of the men already have compromised health after so many years in indefinite detention and are very vulnerable to contracting COVID. They also face an increased risk of attack due to rumours that the virus had been brought into the country by outsiders.

Even though I am now in a safe country and free from my terrible experience of Australia’s cruel offshore detention system, my fellow refugees are always on my mind. My fellow refugees are still suffering in PNG and Nauru. The 130 men who remain in Port Moresby have now been separated according to their refugee status and are being held in different facilities across the poorer city areas where their safety is at high risk.

On 21 April a group of refugees were attacked by a local armed gang. The armed men broke into the Citi Boutique Hotel in Port Moresby where the men are being held. They looted their belongings at gun point. More than four refugees were injured during this incident. No action was taken by authorities to protect the men.

Living as a refugee in Port Moresby means living every day in fear of your life.

The PNG government has received COVID-19 vaccinations from both Australia and India, and they are being rolled out to people in the medical professions, government officials and locals. No efforts have been made to vaccinate refugees even though they too are a high-risk group. Masks and hand sanitiser have not been provided and refugees are left to hide again in limbo.

Living as a refugee in Port Moresby means living every day in fear of your life. It is unimaginable. It often feels even worse than the dangers we fled all those years ago. The threat is constant. PNG is not a safe place for them to be held against their will. It is clear that local communities in Port Moresby do not want the refugees there. I say that with the confidence of someone who lived as a refugee in the community. I saw the political and economic problems in the country and experienced a life on the margins of society.

How long must people wait?

The mental and physical health of the refugees in Port Moresby is deteriorating day by day. They have no hope left, no dreams of a future. Most have no options for resettlement and everyone is suffering from severe depression and anxiety.

It is hard seeing fellow detainees leaving and being resettled in safe countries. Of course, they are happy for them but it is bittersweet. In Australia, the Medevac refugees are being released into the community after more than a year in hotel detention, but without adequate financial assistance and with no certainty about their future.

These are triggering events for the men who remain in PNG. Fears and frustrations heighten. Worries increase, as does the anxiety that they will be forced to live out the rest of their days in this cycle of fear and without hope of work or a future, never knowing when their small allowance will be cut off entirely.

There are no other options available to the remaining men in PNG. The Australian Government continues to refuse the New Zealand government’s offer to resettle 150 refugees. The Australian government has the responsibility to find a permanent solution for the men that have been held for eight years. They are political prisoners used for a political agenda. It is time for the Australian government to take responsibility for the remaining 130 men in PNG, and to either accept New Zealand’s offer or bring them to Australia until a resettlement option is found.

The Australian government has spent millions of Australian taxpayer dollars to hold these men prisoner. This is a failure of the Australian government and damaging to its reputation – it inflicts extreme harm when it could have instead assisted innocent and vulnerable people who sought safety in Australia.

I am now a free man and living in a safe country, but my past continues to haunt me. While I learn the language and the customs of my new country, the brothers I left behind continue to be neglected by the Australian government. I fear for their lives as I know the human soul can only endure so much pain. I fear they will disappear from sight forever if forced to settle in PNG. Forgotten people, used and destroyed, deterrents for a political agenda. Surely after eight years these forgotten refugees deserve better.

The author gratefully acknowledges Omid Tofighian for his help in writing this piece and bringing it to publication.

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