Published On: Wed, Feb 19th, 2014

Australia Asylum: Inquiries Promised On PNG Camp Violence

Australia and Papua New Guinea have both pledged to investigate violence at a detention centre that left one asylum seeker dead and 77 injured.Clashes broke out at Australia’s immigration detention centre on Manus Island in PNG on Sunday and Monday.

The Manus Island centre

There are conflicting reports on what sparked the violence on Monday night, with reports PNG police fired shots.

Rights groups have called for an urgent and transparent probe, warning Australia it is failing asylum seekers.

Australia sends asylum seekers arriving by boat for detention and processing in offshore camps in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific territory of Nauru.

Conditions in these camps have been strongly criticised by UN agencies and rights groups.

Fences breached

On Sunday, 35 asylum seekers briefly escaped after breaking a fence at the detention centre. The incident reportedly came after detainees were told that they would not be resettled in Australia.

On Monday, another outbreak of violence led to the death of one asylum seeker, with 77 injured. Most of the injured suffered head wounds, while one was shot in the buttocks.

Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said Monday night’s violence happened after asylum seekers broke fences at the detention centre, breaching internal and external perimeters.

PNG police “were reported to have fired shots” on two occasions, but “there’s no suggestion they fired at asylum seekers”, he said.

It was unclear whether the violence took place inside or outside the Australian-run centre, he added.

The NGO Refugee Action Coalition told Australian media that PNG police and locals had broken into the centre and attacked asylum seekers.

Security firm G4S, which provides security in the detention centre, said in a statement: “Claims that the transferees breached the fence following internal attacks on them by local residents are unfounded.”

“A number of transferees were injured after they breached the perimeter fence and the matter became a law enforcement issue for PNG authorities,” it said, adding that G4S staff restored order without the use of force.

Australia has announced an inquiry into the incidents, led by the head of the Australian Immigration Department.

PNG has also sent a delegation to the island to investigate. President Peter O’Neill said the government “will not tolerate anyone breaking the laws of PNG”.

He said that the asylum seeker who had died was an Iranian national.

“PNG remains committed to the resettlement programme and finding a lasting solution to the global challenge of human smuggling,” he said.

‘Inadequate safeguards’

Meanwhile, Gillian Triggs, head of the Australian Human Rights Commission, told broadcaster ABC that the inquiries into the unrest could fall short.

“The difficulty with inquiries by the varied parties that are being challenged, or whose practices are being investigated, is always less than optimal,” she said.

The Australian inquiry should be headed by “somebody who has objectivity, and who would be able to look at the development of the facts”, she said, adding that a “retired civil servant” would be preferable.

Amnesty International also called for an “urgent, independent investigation”, describing the asylum seeker’s death as “a result of Australia and Papua New Guinea’s unlawful policy of offshore processing”.

Manus Island is one of two offshore processing camps in which asylum seekers are detained.

Australia has also initiated a new policy where people who are accepted as refugees will be settled in Papua New Guinea rather than Australia.

UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said: “UNHCR is very concerned about the recent developments on Manus Island.”

“UNHCR has consistently raised issues around the transfer arrangements and on the absence of adequate protection standards and safeguards for asylum seekers and refugees in PNG.

“Significant shortcomings in the legal framework for receiving and processing asylum-seekers from Australia remain, including lack of national capacity and expertise in processing, and poor physical conditions.”