Papua New Guinea court calls Australian Refugee Detention Center illegal

A Supreme Court decision has been hailed as a step toward ending the human rights violations at Australia's remote detention centers, though Australia shows no signs it will officially end the program.

Firdia Lisnawati/AP/File
Iranian asylum seekers who were caught in Indonesian waters while sailing to Australia sit on a boat at Benoa port in Bali, Indonesia. Papua New Guinea's Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that Australia's detention of asylum seekers at a facility on the country's Manus Island is unconstitutional.

Australia is breaching the personal liberty of the asylum seekers that the nation is currently holding at a facility on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island, a Supreme Court there ruled Tuesday.

Citing several human rights violations the Papua New Guinea court has ordered both the Australian and Papua New Guinea governments to "take all steps necessary" to stop the "unconstitutional and illegal detention of the asylum seekers or transferees." The court said that because the detained people never entered the island nation willingly, detaining them was violating their freedom.

The Manus Island detention center is currently holding around 900 adults, most whose refugee status has been determined to be legitimate, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Under the controversial program that has drawn widespread international criticism, asylum seekers heading for Australian shores by boat are intercepted by military vessels patrolling the waters and sent to its northern neighbor. The agreement was set up between the two nations in 2013, in which Australia agreed to give Papua New Guinea $309 million in exchange for establishing the refugee camp.

Australian policymakers supporting the program have long argued that the program is intended to protect the lives of the asylum seekers traveling by boat, alluding to the recent high number of asylum seekers who die at sea, while attempting to reach Europe.

While the policy has received international scrutiny, several polls show that a majority of Australians are in favor of preventing asylum seekers from reaching Australian shores. Some 58 percent of Australians said they "totally agree" and 30 percent said they "strongly agree" with the government's policy to intercept and turn back asylum seekers arriving by boat, according to a 2015 poll by Essential Report, ABC reported. Only 27 percent said they "disagreed or strongly disagreed" with the policy. The report also found that Australians were likely to harden their stance as more information about the asylum seekers was revealed. A second version of the poll asked the respondents if they would agree with the policies if they found out that the asylum seekers would be prevented from entering any other country in the region. Those who "totally agreed" increased to 60 percent while those who "strongly agree" increased to 34 percent.

But critics say of the program including the United Nations say that Australia is violating international law. The UN and other rights groups have reported dire conditions in the detention camps.

"The real concern for people are the conditions, psychologically, that people go through in terms of being indefinitely detained," Matt Siegel a senior correspondent for Reuters in Sydney, told NPR in February. "Some of these people have been in these camps for three, four, five years, and that leads to an enormous level of self-harm, suicide attempts, especially among – and most disturbingly, amongst children and young children."

The ruling has been hailed as a great step forward by human rights organizations which have long called Australia's detention program inhumane. In February, Australia's Supreme Court declared the detention practice constitutional, dealing a blow to rights group who challenged Canberra's policy on asylum seekers arriving by boat.

"PNG's supreme court has recognised that detaining people who have committed no crime is wrong," Elaine Pearson, Australia's Director of Human Rights Watch, told The Guardian. "For these men, their only mistake was to try to seek sanctuary in Australia – that doesn't deserve years in limbo locked up in a remote island prison."

But the ruling by the Papua New Guinea court will not necessarily have any impact on the Australian government. Australia's immigration minister Peter Dutton was quoted saying that the ruling won't change the country's policy.  

"It does not alter Australia's border protection policies – they remain unchanged," Mr. Dutton said in a statement. "No one who attempts to travel to Australia illegally by boat will settle in Australia."

"Those in the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre found to be refugees are able to resettle in Papua New Guinea," he added. "Those found not to be refugees should return to their country of origin."

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