Authorities in PNG must allow aid in, must not use force to move refugees out

Responding to a notice issued by Papua New Guinea (PNG) authorities on Thursday morning at the Lombrum refugee detention centre on Manus Island stating that refugees must leave the centre by 11 November or be forcibly removed, Amnesty International said:

It is imperative that the PNG and Australian authorities immediately allow aid into the camp, and that they do not respond to the worsening conditions in the Lombrum detention centre by attempting to forcibly move the refugees to other locations.  Any use of force in this highly charged environment is likely to lead to serious injury or loss of life.

Amnesty International researchers have just returned from Manus Island where they witnessed first-hand the shocking conditions at the centre.

“This is a man-made crisis. It is the Australian and PNG governments who have left the men without food, clean water, proper sanitation or electricity.  They cannot, having created the situation, now compound it by sending in security forces to force the refugees to move,” said Kate Schuetze, Amnesty International’s Pacific Researcher.

“There is a solution to what we are seeing inside the camp – immediately allow humanitarian assistance in to restore access to food, water, electricity and health care.  This is the only option that would be compatible with international human rights law at this point.”

Amnesty International has long called for the camp on Manus Island to be closed and the refugees brought to safety in Australia.  What has happened is closure of one camp, and opening another, in a location where the refugees would be even less safe.

The approximately 600 men in Lombrum have been forced to choose between fundamental necessities of survival or a move to a place where they face the risk of violent attacks from some elements of the local population and years more in detention-like conditions.

With all services cut off the situation has, predictably, deteriorated badly in the camp.  Unless services are restored people will become ill and deaths are a real possibility.  Already several refugees have been taken ill in the deplorable conditions at Lombrum.  At the weekend one man with a heart condition collapsed and medical aid took several hours to arrive.

Amnesty International is concerned that the authorities will use the shocking footage as a pretext to send in security forces and forcibly move the refugees to new locations.

“We are putting the governments of PNG and Australia on notice:  using force will almost inevitably lead to serious human rights violations.  The consequences of any such decision are foreseeable and it would be a grave matter if the authorities took any action that could result in serious injury or deaths,” said Kate Schuetze.

“There is a clear, alternative, course of action. Services must be restored until a safe and dignified solution to the situation is agreed, one that respect the rights of the refugees.”

The decision by PNG and Australia to cut off all services at Lombrum appears to have been calculated to force the refugees to move to new locations.  However, the refugees have told Amnesty International they are determined not to move because they fear for their safety in the new sites.  Amnesty International’s research confirms their fears are well-founded.  Refugees have been attacked and seriously injured by some members of the local population who have made clear they do not want the men on PNG.  Refugees have little or no protection from these attacks except to live inside detention centres.

“Deliberately denying refugees food and water in a context where they cannot support themselves in order to coerce them to move is a serious violation of their human rights. This is cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” said Kate Schuetze.

“Australia could also end the crisis by immediately bringing the refugees and vulnerable men to Australia, where they first sought protection.”