Inquiry into Manus violence must address root causes of unrest: HRLC Submission

The recent violence inside the Manus Island detention centre was a foreseeable and preventable result of the circumstances in which asylum seekers have been transferred and detained, the Human Rights Law Centre has told the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee in a written submission.

The Senate Committee is conducting an inquiry into the violence that occurred inside the centre from 16 to 18 February 2014. The violence saw the death of one asylum seeker, Reza Berati, and the serious injury of many others.

The HRLC’s Director of Legal Advocacy, Daniel Webb, said that while it is vital that the individuals responsible for the violence be held to account, it is equally important to address the root causes of the unrest.

“The violence on Manus did not occur in a vacuum. It occurred in the context of policy arrangements which are inherently harmful and breach international law”, said Mr Webb.

“It has been almost 18 months since the first transfers to Manus took place. Not one refugee status determination has been completed and not one refugee has been resettled. 1300 men languish indefinitely in harsh conditions. Leaving them in limbo will inevitably cause harm and lead to unrest”, said Mr Webb.

The HRLC submission also says that despite having sent asylum seekers to PNG, Australia retains responsibility for ensuring their human rights are respected.

“Our human rights obligations don’t end at our borders. We can’t just hide behind PNG sovereignty whenever things go wrong. Australia sends asylum seekers to Manus. Australia built, runs and funds the centre in which they’re detained. So Australia retains both legal and moral responsibility for events which happen therein”, said Mr Webb.

The submission also raises the HRLC’s concerns about the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection’s comments in the aftermath of the violence.

“Reza Berati’s death ought to have triggered an urgent review of the role Australia’s policies played in causing the tragedy and the improvements necessary to prevent further incidents. Instead, in the immediate aftermath the Minister made comments which sought to shift blame for the violence to its victims” said Mr Webb.

“Despite the Minister’s suggestions to the contrary, the violence did not happen because asylum seekers went beyond the perimeter fence. It happened, at least in part, because they were left languishing behind it”, said Mr Webb.

The HRLC recommends closing the Manus detention centre and processing asylum seekers onshore.  In the event that the Manus facility is to remain in operation, the HRLC urges the Government to take immediate steps to:

  1. ensure individuals responsible for acts of violence are held to account;
  2. ensure the safety of asylum seekers within the Manus RPC;
  3. address the inhuman conditions inside the RPC; and
  4. address the inordinate delays in processing and resettlement which clearly underpinned the unrest.

“There must be an urgent overhaul of the current offshore mandatory detention arrangements to ensure that events like this do not occur again. Changes need to focus not just on increasing security but also on decreasing cruelty”, said Mr Webb.

A copy of the HRLC’s submission can be downloaded here.