by Francesco Vecchio
On 26 April 2016, Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court ruled that the detention of asylum seekers intercepted at sea and held in the center of Manus Island is illegal.
Australia pays Papua New Guinea, and the tiny state of Nauru, to detain asylum seekers trying to land illegally in Australia on boats generally insecure. The two detention centers are an integral part of the rigid Australian defense policy of national borders, which states that asylum seekers arriving by boat must be detained offshore during the screening of their application for asylum, and then repatriated or resettled in Papua New Guinea, or in another country, if they are recognized to be refugees.
The Supreme Court judges ruled that the detention of asylum seekers is unconstitutional because it is undeniable that the asylum seekers detained on the island were heading to Australia, and were only later intercepted and taken to Manus Island, where they were held against their will. The court decided that Australia and Papua New Guinea should take every necessary step to guarantee the right to personal liberty of these detainees.
The ruling is said to be a major blow to Australia’s bipartisan policy on the control of irregular migration. For years, offshore detention has been presented to the public as the only effective deterrent mechanism to avoid recurrent arrivals of asylum seekers by boat. In 2013 Tony Abbott led the Coalition to success in Australia’s political elections largely playing the card of migration control and the detention of irregular arrivals. On 2 July 2016 there will be new elections in Australia, and both major parties have maintained that the offshore detention policy will not be touched, despite reports of violence against women, suicide attacks and deaths from inadequate health services, which originate from time to time from these centers.
There are 905 men detained at Manus Island. Some detainees have revealed to the press that it is now possible for them to leave the centre by making use of a shuttle bus connecting the centre and the island town. This measure has however been criticized by asylum seekers and their supporters, as asylum seekers are still unable to leave the island. On 6 May, Papua New Guinea promised the United Nations that it will respect the Supreme Court decision and is in talks with Australia to decide the fate of the 905 asylum seekers on the island. The Australian immigration minister however said that Australia is not responsible for those people and is up to Papua New Guinea to decide how it runs its center.
Meanwhile in Nauru, more than 100 asylum seekers have signed a petition demanding that they be granted the opportunity to continue their journey. The petition says asylum seekers have been denied the right to personal liberty, and condemns Australia for denying them access to asylum and for having imprisoned them like slaves for over three years. On the contrary, the petition claims that numbers of Australians have enjoyed political and economic benefits from their detention. This petition follows the recent suicide of a Bangladeshi asylum seeker and numerous cases of self-harm and violence that the local police is often unable to investigate, for the Australian personnel alleged to be involved is often suddenly repatriated.