Australia: Asylum seekers held in cruel and prison-like regime on Manus Island

The Australian government is holding more than 1,000 asylum seekers in shameful conditions in a processing centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, said Amnesty International. 

A report published today details how asylum seekers are being held in a prison-like regime, in extremely cramped compounds in stifling heat, while being denied sufficient water and medical help. Most have fled horrific situations and risked their lives in their efforts to reach Australia. 

“This system of harsh conditions and humiliating treatment is a deliberate effort to pressure people to return to the desperate situations they have fled from. Australia is directly responsible for this deplorable and unlawful combination of arbitrary detention and inhumane conditions,” said Amnesty International Australia’s National Director Claire Mallinson. 

“The policy of shipping asylum seekers, many of whom have suffered terribly in their home countries, to offshore facilities has to end.” 

Amnesty International’s report This Is Breaking People: Human Rights Violations at Australia’s Asylum Seeker Processing Centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea is based on a recent 11-16 November research visit to Manus Island. It details the appalling conditions in the centre, where only 55 out of more than 1,000 asylum seekers have been able to start a claim for refugee status. 

“The Australian policy is cruelly ironic. Australia recognizes the dangerous situation in countries like Syria and Myanmar. It knows these people have risked life and limb to escape, but then they are held in prison- like conditions and denied their right to seek asylum,” said Claire Mallinson. 

Many of the asylum seekers being held on Manus Island have fled well-known conflict areas including Afghanistan, Darfur, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria. Others have fled situations of extreme discrimination and statelessness, including Rohingyas from Myanmar and Bidun from the Gulf region, and have nowhere to return to. 

Some told how they have contemplated suicide because of the harsh and humiliating conditions. 

One 43-year old Iraqi said: “I have lived in war zones, with bombs and explosions. I have never experienced what I am experiencing here with the uncertainty we face. If we had died in the ocean that would have been better.” 

The inhumane treatment is pressuring potential refugees to choose to return to their country of origin. This is a serious breach of Australia’s obligations under international law, exposing the individuals to the risk of return to places where they will likely be persecuted or potentially tortured. 

The Manus Island Regional Processing Centre (RPC) is essentially an Australian-run facility based on Papua New Guinean soil. Australian authorities are closely involved in every aspect of the arrest, transfer, and detention of asylum seekers. It also contracts the security guards, service and health providers, and has overall involvement in the day-to-day running of the facility. 

Harsh and deliberate cruelty – conditions of everyday life 

At the time of Amnesty International’s visit, there were approximately 1,100 male asylum seekers in the facility, divided between three “compounds”, Delta, Foxtrot and Oscar. Each compound is surrounded by eight feet high metal fences and patrolled by security guards contracted by the Australian government. 

The compounds are extremely cramped, leave no room for privacy and provide no shade or shelter from the oppressive tropical heat, humidity and heavy rain. Detainees spend several hours a day queuing in the sun for their meals. 

Foxtrot’s P Dorm is particularly concerning and violates obligations under the UN Convention against Torture. It has a corrugated iron roof, no windows and only two small working fans to be shared between 112 men in overcrowded conditions. 

“The mixture of stifling heat, sweat and moisture leaves a permanent, overwhelming stench.  Asylum seekers reported finding snakes in the room and flooding when it rained,” said Claire Mallinson. 

The men also told how drinking water has been denied in Oscar compound – where detainees receive only a tenth of what they need. 

Inadequate health and communication facilities 

The facility is unable to provide suitable treatment for men with serious illnesses and disabilities, including asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, gastroenteritis and dwarfism. 

The facility cannot cope with the growing demand for health and mental health services. Medical staff are frustrated at the lack of response from Australian authorities to basic requests which would improve health and sanitation within the camp. 

Verbal and physical abuse 

Amnesty International also heard testimonies of humiliating treatment from the moment the men are transferred to the RPC. Detainees are mainly referred to by their boat ID numbers, and many cite cases of verbal and physical abuse by staff, including being kicked, punched and shoved. 

 “This is the process of how you break someone mentally. These conditions are contributing to a range of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, lack of sleep and trauma, especially for men from war zones,” said one medical professional. 

Lack of processing 

The policy of offshore processing means that individuals are denied the right to seek asylum on arrival in Australia. However, not a single refugee decision has been handed down by the PNG government since the policy began in late 2012. 

There is little or no processing at the Manus Island RPC. Slow processing times seem deliberately designed to dissuade potential refugees and pressure detainees to return to countries from where they have fled. 

“Given the exorbitant amount already spent on this processing centre, it is entirely unacceptable that only a handful of detainees have just started to have their cases looked at seriously,” said Claire Mallinson. 

The asylum seekers are given no information about the processing or the length of their detention, and have been given no access to lawyers despite repeated requests. The suspense and uncertainty is seriously damaging to their mental health. 


The current policy of offshore processing is a spectacular failure on all fronts. 

Amnesty International calls on the Australian government to immediately review the Regional Resettlement Arrangement with Papua New Guinea and end offshore processing and the offshore detention of asylum seekers.  All asylum seekers held in the Manus Island detention centre must be transferred back to Australian territory and given full access to asylum procedures in Australia. 

Until the Manus Island detention centre is closed and all asylum seekers held there are transferred to Australian territory, the Australian government must take immediate steps to improve conditions on the facility so that they meet international standards. Among them, putting an end to abusive treatment, no longer using P Dorm as housing, providing adequate medical services and making sure individuals are not pressured to return to a country where they are at risk of persecution or other ill-treatment. 

Both the Australian and PNG governments need to urgently ensure a fair and effective system of processing is in place, and they must work with other governments in the region towards a genuine regional solution that protects the rights of asylum seekers and refugees in accordance with international human rights and refugee law.