Photo caption: The East Lorengau Transit Accommodation for refugees on Manus Island. A Victorian judge has agreed a $A70m compensation settlement for Manus Island detainees. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images.
By CYRIL GARE
MORE than 2000 asylum seekers held ”illegally” in detention on Manus Island will be paid $A70 million or K180 million in compensation.
The Guardian described this as “Australia’s largest human rights class action settlement” in our time.
Despite the Victorian Supreme Court ruling, lawyer representing asylum seekers in PNG, Ben Lomai told The National his clients will not be deterred but will still pursue their case in the PNG Supreme Court separately – seeking Exemplary Damages which matter returns to court on Sept 28.
The Victorian Supreme Court on Wednesday – Sept 6 , held that the Commonwealth Government of Australia was “liable” for unlawful detention of the asylum seekers – past and present on Manus – and awarded the compensation.
The $A70 million will equate to each asylum seeker receiving around $A40,000 or K102,000.
But there is a problem; almost all detainees do not have bank accounts as they are not allowed by law to open bank accounts and just did not know how their monies will be paid to them individually.
Behrouz Boochani, a journalist and Iranian refugee being held on Manus Island who has written extensively about the conditions there, told The Guardian the compensation payout was welcomed but had not resolved the insecurity of those held on the island.
“The people are worried because we don’t know how they will pay this amount. We don’t have the right to have a bank account and the Australian Border Force has ordered PNG Immigration to prevent us from opening an account.
“Another thing: the refugees have never been happy with this amount because it cannot cover all of the suffering of four years being in prison for no reason. Still we are suffering and still we are in prison but the case did not cover this,” he said.
This was the second time that courts have found the Manus’ Offshore Processing Centre (OPC) as illegal.
On 26 April 2016, the Supreme Court of PNG found that the centre breached the PNG Constitution’s right to personal liberty, and was thus illegal.
“Both the Australian and Papua New Guinea governments shall forthwith take all steps necessary to cease and prevent the continued unconstitutional and illegal detention of the asylum seekers or transferees at the relocation centre on Manus Island …”, the PNG Supreme Court ruled.
On April 27, 2016, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill announced that the processing centre would be closed, saying his government “will immediately ask the Australian government to make alternative arrangements for the asylum seekers” and that “we did not anticipate the asylum seekers to be kept as long as they have been at the Manus Centre”.
He said PNG was proud to play an important role in stopping the loss of life due to people smuggling.
Mr O’Neill said negotiations with Australia would focus on the timeframe for the closure and for the settlement of legitimate refugees interested in staying in PNG.The Manus Detention Centre is scheduled to close on October 31, 2017.
Slater and Gordon Lawyers representing the asylum seekers in the Victorian Court was hoping to have the sum paid before offshore detention centre closes.
The Australian government settled the landmark class action in June rather than proceed with a six-month trial. Had the matter gone to trial, the court would have heard evidence from detainees detailing deaths inside the detention centre, allegations of systemic sexual and physical abuse, and allegations of inadequate medical treatment leading to injury and death.
The Pacific Solution
The centre was originally established on 21 October 2001, as one of two offshore processing centres (OPC). The other OPC was the Nauru detention centre. The OPC facilities were part of what became known as the “Pacific Solution”, a policy of the Howard government in Australia, which was implemented in the wake of the Tampa affair.
The policy involved the excision of Australian external territories (Christmas Island, Ashmore and Cartier Islands and Cocos (Keeling) Island) and other islands in the Pacific Ocean – from the Australian migration zone.
Unlawful maritime arrivals (boatpeople without visas seeking asylum in Australia) who arrived at these excised territories were transferred to the OPC facilities where they would stay while their claims for asylum were processed. The centres were managed by the International Organization for Migration.